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Auditors Scold UCI Cadaver Program

Misappropriated funds, policy breeches, lax scrutiny are among findings presented in school's own report on Willed Body Program.

December 07, 2000|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A UC Irvine audit released Wednesday found that the former director of the medical school's cadaver program, misappropriated money and tried to cover it up.

The 29-page audit portrays a Willed Body Program in disarray under Christopher Brown, who was later fired by the university, with poor record keeping and little supervision from the professors above him.

The audit confirms previous allegations and adds new details, including that Brown performed an unauthorized autopsy in the Willed Body lab for his sister-in-law's sociology of death class, that he improperly solicited cash donations to the program and overcharged UCI for travel cost.

The audit also uncovered overcharges of several hundred dollars by Harry's Transportation for carrying cadavers. The company was owned by Jeffrey Frazier, a business associate of Brown's.

The previously obscure Willed Body Program, which handles cadavers the university uses for research, broke into the news 15 months ago when a routine audit found that Brown had charged the university for a trip to Phoenix and sold spines to a hospital there. The check for the bones was made out to University Health Services, a company Frazier owned.

The audit confirmed earlier media reports that donated cadavers were used without university permission in a private anatomy class in the Willed Body morgue and that families may have received the wrong remains or been improperly billed for the return of their relatives' ashes. Frazier owned Replica Notes, the firm that sponsored the anatomy class.

In an e-mail message Wednesday to The Times, Brown said, "The school can 'say' whatever it wants (they've been doing it for over a year now!)... let's see how they do when all is said and done in court!"

Brown previously has said he was a scapegoat and that his superiors knew what was going on.

Brown's attorney, Melvyn D. Sacks, called the audit "the same old allegations. It's just the university protecting their rear ends from lawsuits from these people who donated bodies that aren't accounted for."

Frazier's attorney, Joe Hartley, declined comment.

A criminal investigation by the Orange County district attorney's office is continuing.

In his letter to UCI Chancellor Ralph J. Cicerone that accompanied the audit, College of Medicine Dean Thomas C. Cesario said the audit "found no evidence that donated bodies were used for anything other than scientific, research, or academic purposes."

After the scandal broke, the Willed Body Program, which used about 75 cadavers a year, shut down for almost six months. UCI began accepting bodies again in April. Cesario said that because of the publicity it has received, the Willed Body Program has received more interest from potential donors than ever.

UCI has tightened up the program, with written procedures and policies, an advisory group, a system for tracking body parts, increased supervision and a more experienced program director making almost twice Brown's $33,000 a year.

The UCI auditors could account for what happened to only 121 of the 441 cadavers donated to the Willed Body Program for medical and scientific research from Jan. 1, 1995 through Aug. 11, 1999. Those dates indicate there were record-keeping problems before Brown, a funeral director, became head of the program in May 1996.

UCI cannot identify four cadavers in the Willed Body morgue.

The report lays out case after case where auditors "believe" Brown and Frazier improperly took money from the program. For instance, three families paid to have the ashes returned but there was no record the school received the funds. One family said they paid Brown cash and the other two said they wrote the checks to "Harry's Transport" and "UCT."

"We believe these payments were misappropriated by Mr. Brown," the report says.

"During the investigation, we noted that Mr. Brown was solely responsible for lab activities, and that his supervisor was not actively involved in the oversight of the lab," the audit says. "Therefore, Mr. Brown had the opportunity to engage in improper activities. We were unable to determine whether improper activities regarding unaccounted for assets may have occurred except for the sale of cervical spines. . . ."

As a result of the misplaced bodies, about 20 lawsuits have been filed against UCI, Brown, and Frazier. When attorneys attempted to depose Brown Nov. 15, he invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination to all questions. Brown is representing himself in the lawsuits.

Brown, 28, has declared bankruptcy, moved in with his in-laws and is working as a bouncer. He is engaged in a rancorous arbitration fight with UCI to get his job back.

Two days after Brown was put on leave in Aug. 1999, auditors found bags of thigh bones in the Willed Body Program's freezer. The report said Brown didn't know anything about them.

"We could not determine how or when the specimens were sent" to the Willed Body Program, the audit said.

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