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Ousted Professor to Fight Back

* Dr. Sergio Stone vows to regain his UC Irvine job and the reputation he lost in the fertility clinic scandal.

March 21, 2000|PETER M. WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Sergio Stone, fired last week by the University of California regents for his role in the scandal that shuttered UC Irvine's world-renowned fertility clinic in 1995, vowed Monday to regain his job and restore his reputation.

Stone said he will go to court in the next 45 days to begin the process to reverse his firing, only the fourth time since the 1950s that a tenured UC professor has been dismissed. The Board of Regents cited "multiple and serious violations of the Faculty Code of Conduct" in their decision March 15.

Interviewed at his attorney's office in Newport Beach, Stone talked at length about the challenges of the past five years, calling them personally and professionally overwhelming.

"It is very difficult," said the 58-year-old gynecologist from Chile. "One of the most difficult things in my life is to wake up in the morning and realize that I don't feel like doing anything. Nevertheless, there are many things to be done."

Stone, who has been on UCI's faculty since 1978, knows the vindication he seeks involves more than overturning the regents' decision. His name and career--as a specialist in gynecological surgery and endocrinology--if he is able to resume it, will forever be linked to the theft of eggs and embryos at UCI's now-defunct Center for Reproductive Health.

Stone was never accused of being involved in the thefts, in which eggs and embryos belonging to patients were implanted in other women or used for research without permission. He specialized in uterine surgery and preparing women to produce multiple eggs during their monthly cycle for in vitro fertility procedures by his two colleagues, Drs. Ricardo H. Asch and Jose P. Balmaceda. Stone's work was at the front-end of the fertility procedure that became the clinic's stock-in-trade.

And unlike Asch and Balmaceda--who are practicing in Mexico and Chile, respectively--Stone notes that he stayed to confront federal criminal charges and to fight for his medical license.

Still, he faults himself for failing to see what was going on at the center's embryology lab.

"I should have been more alert," he said, his face filled with sadness during the interview Monday.

"But the allegations were so ridiculous. How could I believe that eggs were being used without patients' consent?"

His lawyers will seek his reinstatement as part of a lawsuit filed on Stone's behalf in 1995. His firing will be added to a list of grievances accusing university administrators of excessive punishment and jumping to conclusions about who was at fault at the fertility clinic when they suspended him with pay as the scandal unfolded.

In firing Stone, regents cited his 1998 conviction on federal charges, as well as his failure to obtain prior permission to do research on human subjects, failure to notify the university of ethical misconduct by his partners and the practice's failure to pay assessments and report income to be shared with the university.

He was found guilty of nine counts of felony mail fraud for reporting that assistant surgeons were present during surgeries attended only by himself, and for allowing those reports to be used to charge insurance companies for work that he said was done by his partners, but in fact was done by medical residents. The billings totaled $2,700, he said.

But Stone notes that despite the conviction--on charges unrelated to implant procedures--he avoided prison time, paying $71,000 in fines and penalties. The California Medical Board allowed him to keep his license, provided he serve three years' probation and take an ethics course.

He calls himself a "sacrificial lamb" for the fertility scandal, and has accused the university of firing him for things that otherwise would have been ignored or resulted in a smaller penalty.

A faculty panel last year agreed, in part, saying his actions were without "evil intent." The panel recommended he be demoted to the lowest rung of the professor scale.

"Were it not for his association with the egg-and-embryo scandal [through his partnership with Asch and Balmaceda] it seems highly unlikely that he would have faced criminal prosecution in this matter," the panel wrote in September 1999, after hearing 26 witnesses over nearly three weeks of testimony the previous fall.

"This was not the conclusion we expected to reach," the panel wrote. "Although the case against Professor Stone appeared formidable at the outset, we were surprised to find that it partially unraveled under close scrutiny."

In explaining some of its reasoning, the panel noted that while a felony conviction in the course of one's professional duty is normally sufficient cause for firing, this was an unusual case because Stone was following a billing practice in common usage at UCI--which has since changed--and as a result he may have thought his conduct was proper.

"We do not believe that his crime was the product of an evil or malevolent character," they wrote.

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