SAN FRANCISCO — The University of California Board of Regents, in a rare act of punishment, on Wednesday fired Dr. Sergio C. Stone, one of three physicians at the center of the 1995 UC Irvine fertility scandal.
The board rejected a recommendation by a panel of UCI faculty, which held an extensive hearing and concluded in September that Stone should only be demoted. In firing Stone, the regents cited "multiple and serious violations of the Faculty Code of Conduct."
The vote marks only the fourth time that the regents have dismissed a tenured professor since the late 1950s. At that time, then-UC President Clark Kerr pushed through lifetime tenure protections for professors to end an era in which faculty had been dismissed for refusing to sign anti-communist loyalty oaths.
Stone said after the vote that he had not decided whether to appeal his dismissal through the courts. "It has been five years," he said in an interview. "I'm exhausted and destroyed."
Before the vote, he took the extraordinary step of pleading for his job in open session before the board, granting the public a rare peek into university personnel matters usually handled behind closed doors.
"I am not the despicable person described by the administration," Stone said. "If it were true, I would have left the university long ago." He accused the administration of making him the scapegoat for a scandal that tarnished the university. "They continue to try to punish me for the sins and crimes of others," he said.
The scandal involved the stealing of human eggs and embryos, which were implanted in unsuspecting women at UCI's now-defunct Center for Reproductive Health.
Stone was not accused of actually stealing eggs or embryos, but was convicted of fraudulently billing insurance companies. His two former partners, Ricardo H. Asch and Jose P. Balmaceda, face criminal charges but have fled the country to avoid prosecution.
Stone went on leave with pay in mid-1995. After his conviction, he was fined $50,000 and ordered to serve one year of home detention.
Although his license to practice medicine has not been revoked, Stone said he has been unable to work as a doctor because he cannot obtain malpractice insurance. He faces a civil suit by the university seeking more than $20 million from him and his two former partners.
Kurt Sjoberg, the state auditor, found that the three owed the university about $1.7 million for underreported income from their partnership with the university.
UC's suit seeks to recoup its portion of the underreported income as well as more than $20 million the university has already paid to settle lawsuits from more than 100 infertile couples, including dozens who had their eggs given to other women without their permission.
Meanwhile, the effort to fire Stone worked its way through the UC system for 4 1/2 years, underscoring how difficult it is to persuade faculty to support firing a colleague.
Stone is the first faculty member dismissed from the Irvine campus in its 35 years of existence.
William Parker, associate executive vice chancellor for the campus, said the difference of opinion between the faculty and regents demonstrates that people will come to different judgments from the same circumstances.
"There is is no disagreement about the facts," said Parker, who is a professor of physics. "It is a question of whether the actions were severe enough to warrant removal of tenure, and people will differ about that."
A faculty panel is still considering whether to recommend firing Asch, who remains a tenured UCI professor on unpaid leave. A native of Argentina, he is reportedly running a fertility clinic in Mexico City.
Balmaceda never had a tenured position, and UC officials let his contract expire. He now runs a fertility practice in his native Chile.
In Stone's case, a four-member panel of his peers at UCI, called the Committee on Privilege and Tenure, held hearings for 13 days and collected 2,000 pages of documents before concluding that although Stone had engaged in misconduct, penalties should fall short of termination because of mitigating factors.
In explaining its reasoning, the panel noted that a felony conviction in the course of one's professional duty is normally sufficient cause for firing. But this was an unusual case, they wrote, because Stone was following a practice used by other physicians.
Specifically, Stone was convicted of writing reports suggesting that assistant surgeons were present during surgeries attended only by him, and for charging insurance companies for work that he said was done by his partners but in fact was done by medical residents.
None of the fraud charges were directly related to the theft of eggs.
"Professor Stone's crime seems more akin to an error in administrative judgment than to a truly evil or malevolent act and, in our view, should be treated as such," the committee wrote.