Doctor Indicted in Vegas Hepatitis Exposure Case

June 8, 2010

A former physician-owner and two former employees at a Las Vegas-area colonoscopy clinic have been indicted on 28 felony charges, including racketeering, negligence and insurance fraud stemming from a 2008 hepatitis C outbreak.

A judge in Las Vegas issued arrest warrants for physician Dipak Desai and former Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada anesthetists Ronald Ernest Lakeman and Keith Mathahs on charges resulting from allegations they misused syringes and clinic instruments to transmit the incurable liver disease to seven patients.

Clark County District Court Judge Elissa Cadish set bail at $1 million for Desai and $500,000 each for Lakeman and Mathahs. Each faces decades in prison if convicted.

But Desai’s lawyer, Richard Wright, arranged for his client, a once prominent Las Vegas physician and former head of the investigative committee of the Nevada state Board of Medical Examiners, to remain under house arrest during the weekend and post $1 million bond pending a court appearance.

Wright characterized Desai, 60, as “incapacitated, physically and intellectually,” due to strokes and heart ailments in recent years, and said that if Desai had wanted to flee he would have done so during the two years the case has been under criminal investigation.

Wright said Desai surrendered his license to state medical authorities in February, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and his legal and financial affairs were being handled by his wife, Dr. Kusum Desai. She declined comment outside court.

“He’s definitely no risk to the community and not a danger to the community,” Desai’s defense attorney said.

Prosecutor Michael Staudaher told the judge that despite the bankruptcy, the state was worried Desai “has access to money that we believe he may have squirreled away” and would escape to India.

“He could leave the country at a moment’s notice,” Staudaher said.

Lakeman, 53, no longer lives in Las Vegas, court officials said. He did not immediately respond to a message left after hours at an anesthesia office in Columbus, Ga.

Mathahs, 64, lives in Las Vegas. His lawyer, Jack Buchanan, said his client would have been in court if he had been told the indictment was pending. Instead, Buchanan said, he’ll seek to quash the arrest warrant, plead not guilty, and fight the charges.

Desai, Lakeman and Mathahs are accused of infecting seven patients by reusing endoscopy scopes and vials of an injected anesthetic during outpatient procedures.

The racketeering charge carries a possible sentence of five to 20 years in state prison. It alleges systematic pressure on clinic employees to speed patients through outpatient procedures and submit false anesthesia records and bills to insurance companies.

The other charges — performance of an act in reckless disregard of persons or property, criminal neglect of patients, theft, insurance fraud and obtaining money under false pretenses — carry a combined possible sentence of more than 130 years in prison.

Those charges include allegations that insurance companies were fraudulently billed for the care of the seven patients infected with hepatitis C and two others. Six were treated July 25, 2007, and three were treated Sept. 21, 2007, according to the indictment.

Southern Nevada Health District officials in February 2008 began notifying more than 50,000 patients at two Desai clinics — the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada and Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center — to get tested for hepatitis and HIV.

Authorities later determined that nine people contracted hepatitis C through unsafe injection and clinic practices, and said cases involving another 105 patients may have been related.

Desai’s medical license was suspended months later, and hundreds of patients filed medical malpractice lawsuits and civil damages lawsuits citing the need to be tested and fears that they were infected with an incurable disease.

In the first lawsuit to reach trial, a Clark County District Court jury last month awarded a Las Vegas man and his wife $505 million in punitive and compensatory damages from drug companies that supplied Desai’s clinics with the anesthetic propofol. Desai reached an undisclosed settlement with the couple before trial.

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