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Inside GET-THIN

The obesity empire built by Julian and Michael Omidi comes under scrutiny by authorities after five deaths following Lap-Band surgery

May 06, 2012|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times
  • Brothers Michael, left, and Julian Omidi in 2006.
Brothers Michael, left, and Julian Omidi in 2006. (Bruce Gifford, FilmMagic )

It's a Friday afternoon and the movie "Moneyball" is playing in a medical clinic waiting room at 9001 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills.

No one is there to watch it, just rows of vacant chairs. Perhaps it's just an off day, but on two other recent visits, no more than a handful of people could be found in the waiting room.

It was a much different scene two years ago, when a visitor to the Beverly Hills clinic found the waiting room packed, every seat filled and patients spilling out into an overflow area.

Most were after one thing: Lap-Band weight-loss surgery advertised in the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing campaign that blanketed Southern California freeway billboards and broadcast airwaves. Today, that campaign is nearly dead — most of the billboards have been removed, the catchy jingles lifted from local radio and TV broadcasts.

In December, the Food and Drug Administration warned the clinic and several affiliates that their 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign was misleading because it did not include adequate warnings about the risks of the surgery. Two months later, Lap-Band makerAllergan Inc. said it would no longer sell the device to any of the clinics tied to 1-800-GET-THIN.

Last month, The Times reported that the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery-Homicide unit was investigating the September death of patient Paula Rojeski, 55, of Orange County.

She was one of five patients to die following Lap-Band procedures at clinics affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and other public records. Other patients who died after surgeries, according to those same sources, were Willie Brooks, 35; Ana Renteria, 33; Laura Faitro, 50; and Tamara Walter, 52.

Lawsuits have alleged that the Lap-Band clinics are owned by brothers Michael and Julian Omidi, Iranian immigrants whose fast-lane lifestyles were chronicled on the E! Entertainment reality show "Dr. 90210" in 2004 and 2005. Both men have repeatedly declined interview requests from The Times.

VIDEO: Omidi brothers on 'Dr. 90210'

"They clearly have had the bright light of government scrutiny on them and that has slowed their business," said Alexander Robertson, a Westlake Village attorney who has filed several lawsuits against the Omidis on behalf of dead patients' relatives, patients and former workers.

For a time, business was very good, former employees said in interviews and sworn testimony. In 2010, Julian Omidi said the clinics associated with the ad campaign — listed at 13 on the company's website — were bringing in $21 million a month, Dr. Ihman Shamaan, who performed Lap-Band surgeries at the clinics, testified at a deposition.

The clinics offered a surgical solution to people suffering from chronic obesity: the implantation of a silicone ring — Allergan's patented Lap-Band — around the stomach to discourage overeating. Allergan said the surgery typically costs $12,000 to $20,000, although lawsuits have alleged that some clients of the 1-800-GET-THIN clinics were charged more than $100,000.

GRAPHIC: How the Lap-Band works

Julian Omidi came up with the idea for the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising, according to Dr. H. Joseph Naim, who said he was the first surgeon to perform Lap-Band surgeries at the clinics.

Naim said he was riding as a passenger in Julian Omidi's car on the 5 Freeway in 2008 when Omidi told him he had just purchased the rights for the toll-free number 1-800-GET-THIN.

"Julian is smart, a marketing genius," Naim said. "He said he paid $50,000 for the number. But he had a vision he could make 1,000 times that. He did gamble and it paid off."

The Omidis used aggressive advertising to grow their business, and lawsuits to threaten anyone they perceived as a threat to it, said Robertson, the attorney who has sued them several times.

The brothers — Julian is 43, Michael, 41 — and their affiliated companies have filed four lawsuits against The Times and its journalists, claiming the news organization's articles and columns about patient deaths unfairly damaged their reputation and infringed their trademark.

Each suit was dismissed, and the Omidis and their companies were ordered to pay the newspaper's legal costs.

They've also sued anonymous commenters who posted remarks on The Times' website, seeking damages from people with such names as "RUJoking," "RamonaInCorona," and "OCChick." The Times has been fighting efforts by the Omidis' companies to learn the identities of the anonymous commenters.

Although the brothers have declined interviews, some of their story can be pieced together from public records and interviews with people who knew them.

They were born in Iran and moved to the United States as children, Julian Omidi said in a court filing. The family eventually settled in Irvine.

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