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Cadaver Case Puts Focus on Regents

Observers say the university's governing board must develop stricter safeguards.

March 10, 2004|Charles Ornstein, Stuart Silverstein and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

The University of California Board of Regents must instill stricter safeguards for its willed body programs after four scandals involving mishandling of cadavers at UC campuses since 1993, bioethics experts and attorneys representing relatives of donors say.

"Not only have they dropped the ball, but they stuck their head in the ground," said Raymond Boucher, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in lawsuits filed against UCLA. "There's just no way this could happen if they were diligent in pursuing this. There's no way."

George J. Annas, an expert in health law and bioethics at Boston University, said the repeated incidents should be an embarrassment for UC, one of the nation's most highly regarded public universities.

The regents, Annas said, "have an obligation to find out the facts, and then take action that's designed ... to make sure this doesn't happen again."

On Tuesday, UCLA announced that it was halting donations to its willed body program amid a growing scandal over the apparent illicit sale of body parts from the program, the oldest in the country. Lawyers for the university said the program may be closed permanently.

UC spokeswoman Lavonne Luquis also said the university's auditor, Patrick Reed, last week asked for audits of the willed body programs at all five UC medical schools to make sure the programs are operating properly and have adequate controls and safeguards.

Those evaluations are underway, she said.

In late 1993, UCLA officials promised stricter oversight of its body donor program after the discovery that workers were mixing ashes from human bodies with medical supplies and, in some cases, ashes from dead animals.

Plaintiffs' lawyers also have alleged that the university sent cremated human remains to a city landfill, not to the cemetery rose gardens that they had promised donors.

In 1999, UC Irvine fired Christopher Brown, the director of its willed body program, amid suspicion that he had improperly sold spines from cadavers to an Arizona research program. The buyers paid $5,000 to a company owned by a business associate of Brown.

An audit released in December 2000 found that Brown had misappropriated money and tried to cover it up.

The Irvine audit also found that donated cadavers had been used without university permission in a private anatomy class and that families may have received the wrong remains or been improperly billed for the return of their relatives' ashes.

Then, last year, a man was arrested for stealing remains from at least two bodies donated to UC Davis Medical Center's willed body program. The man had worked for a company hired by UC Davis to transport remains intended for cremation; he also had worked at one time as an autopsy assistant at the medical center.

The latest scandal involves allegations that Henry G. Reid, the director of UCLA's willed body program, and an associate stole body parts, sold them for personal gain and then falsified documents to cover their actions.

People familiar with the investigation say the matter could involve hundreds of bodies taken since 1998.

Louis Marlin, an attorney who represents the regents in cadaver cases, said the string of incidents demonstrates a need for action, possibly on the part of the regents.

"There cannot be a doubt now that there is a need for even more stringent safeguards than have been put on in the past. That is just a fact," he said.

Marlin said the UCLA case involves "nefarious activities by two rogue employees, but that doesn't mean that the regents don't have to take stock of their procedures and evaluate whether or not more stringent procedures could help prevent this type of activity."

Several regents said they agree.

"We are part of the chain of responsibility," Regent Joanne Kozberg said Tuesday. "Do we need to correct this? Absolutely. And to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Kozberg described the body donor programs at UCLA and other UC medical schools as critically important to the training of medical students, but said the university has an equally important commitment to the families of those who have donated their remains to the programs.

"We have to do whatever we can to safeguard the integrity of these programs," Kozberg said. She said she expected the issue to be raised at the regents' next meeting, scheduled for next week in San Francisco.

Regent Judith Hopkinson said the problems, if accurately reflected in news accounts, represent "a very big lapse in oversight."

"And that's something we need to take responsibility for," Hopkinson said. "It needs to be fixed."

But another regent, Ward Connerly, said he was not sure the system's governing board actually could prevent such wrongdoing.

"No matter what kind of system you have in place, if somebody is going to cheat, or break the law, or try to profit personally from university activities ... there's no way you can devise a system that would prevent them from doing it," Connerly said.

"You might be able to devise a system that would catch them soon but there's not a system known to man that will prevent this kind of misconduct."

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