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UCI Still Troubled by Cadaver Scandal

Irvine program was rocked by '99 problems similar to UCLA's. It made reforms, but fallout continues.

March 11, 2004|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

The unfolding controversy over UCLA's willed body program recalls a similar scandal at UC Irvine nearly five years ago that still resonates with lawsuits and efforts at stronger accountability.

UCI has paid about $375,000 to settle four lawsuits related to its Willed Body Program, which had been criticized for its lack of oversight. A trial is scheduled for January to decide the claims of at least 20 families. A class-action suit is also pending. The university already has paid $1.2 million in legal fees.

In the meantime, UCI has placed over the program a stringent set of regulations and accounting procedures.

"I feel we've minimized the risk it would happen," said medical school dean Thomas Cesario. "We got burned, recognized it and put a lot of effort in to fix it. But when you're dealing with people, I'd never make guarantees."

The problem, Cesario said, is that academics look at the Willed Body Program as a public service: people donating their bodies to aid science and education. "The lesson we learned is -- shockingly to us -- that there were people who could make money off these programs. That's the curse of this stuff."

The UCI problems unfolded when the university discovered during a routine audit that Christopher Brown, the then 27-year-old director of the program, had billed the school for a trip to Phoenix, where he sold several spines to a hospital for $5,000. The check was made out to a company owned by a business associate instead of UCI.

As the university and reporters looked more closely at the program, they discovered that families did not necessarily receive the remains of their relatives and had been improperly billed for the return of the ashes.

They also found that Brown had performed an unauthorized autopsy in the Willed Body lab for his sister-in-law's sociology-of-death class and that he improperly solicited cash donations to the program.

UCI auditors could account for only 121 of the 441 cadavers donated to the Willed Body Program for medical and scientific research from 1995 through 1999, indicating there were record-keeping problems before Brown became head of the program in 1996.

UCI could not identify four cadavers in its morgue.

Brown was not charged with any crimes, but he is a defendant in the lawsuits against UCI.

UCLA's medical school suspended its willed body program after the arrests of its director and a middleman for allegedly selling body parts.

John Burns, a Laguna Niguel lawyer who represents two sisters suing UCI for its handling of their mother's body, said the UCLA and UCI programs seem to have one thing in common: "very little oversight of the non-physicians running the program."

While UCLA's problems appear much more extensive, the willed body affair at UCI was the fourth scandal to hit its medical school in as many years, threatening permanent damage to its reputation and raising questions about more systemic problems.

UCI had already fired or sanctioned administrators or professors who were involved in the other UCI cases, which started in 1995 when doctors stole eggs and embryos of scores of women and gave them to other patients. Two years later, cancer researchers improperly charged patients for experimental treatments, and in 1998 a doctor used patients' blood for research without asking permission.

The UCLA scandal has led universities around the country to examine their programs. "We've learned from reports in the media not to take this lightly," said Barry Shur, chairman of cell biology at Emory University in Atlanta, who oversees the program there. "My God, could this happen here? What's in place here? These are exactly the conversations we had when this story broke and daily, and they will be ongoing."

Cesario and UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone admitted several years ago that medical school officials were not paying enough attention to the Willed Body Program.

They have instituted a series of stringent reforms to remedy the problem since the program reopened in 2000, detailed in an inch-thick policy book.

Cesario said UCI consulted attorneys and others to rebuild its program but found no one program to model.

"I still sit on the edge of my seat hoping we've covered all the bases," he said. "I just hope and pray."

Michael Godsey, who was hired in 2000 to replace Brown, said officials from UC San Diego and UC Davis visited the UCI program to see what they could learn. No one from UCLA visited, he said.

"We're very proud of what we've put together," Godsey said. "We feel it's a model."

The appointment of Godsey, who has spent 30 years in the funeral industry and who is a licensed embalmer and funeral director, speaks to how UCI has tried to upgrade the program. Godsey, 51, earns $83,000 a year, compared with Brown's $33,000-a-year salary.

Brown, also a licensed embalmer, was just 24 when he became the Willed Body Program's only employee.

UCI also created the new position of assistant director, with an annual salary of $63,400.

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