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Judge calls allegations of 21 operations by non-surgeon 'horrible'

A judge Friday denied a request to lower the bail of a doctor accused in what prosecutors have described as one of largest insurance fraud schemes in California history, calling the accusations in the case "horrible."

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy noted that some of the allegations involve a physician's assistant performing operations on patients under anesthesia. 

"Unnecessary surgeries by non-surgeons?" Kennedy said. "That's pretty shocking stuff."

Dr. David Johnson is one of 15 people charged in connection with a scheme that “put greed and money before the care and health of hundreds of patients," according to a bail motion filed by prosecutors Thursday.

At Friday's hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. Dayan Mathai said even after Johnson's arrest last week, his name was used to bill a patient for treatment purportedly done that day. Johnson's attorney said the 80-year-old doctor has stage 4 bladder cancer and can't get adequate treatment in county jail.

Richard Marino, a deputy attorney general representing the state medical board, told the judge that the fraud allegations were highly unusual because they involved actual operations performed on patients rather than simply billing for procedures that never took place.

"Twenty-one patients, at least, underwent surgery," Marino said, before pointing at Johnson. "But for that man's medical license, that wouldn't have happened."

Prosecutors said the investigation took five years and that the physician's assistant who performed surgeries, Peter Nelson, had never attended medical school. Patients had been led to believe that the operations would be performed by an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Munir Uwaydah, 49.

Uwaydah and Nelson are among the defendants under indictment in the case. Nelson has pleaded not guilty. Uwaydah has not appeared in court.

Hundreds of patients were cut open and scarred, prosecutors said, and some needed corrective surgery.

The conspirators paid kickbacks to attorneys and middle-men in exchange for illegal patient referrals, prosecutors said. A woman who worked at a marketing firm got $10,000 a month to provide Uwaydah with a certain number of patients, according to prosecutors. 

More than $150 million was fraudulently billed to insurance companies, the district attorney's office alleged, saying those involved hid the money in shell bank accounts. Millions of dollars were transferred to Lebanon and Estonia, according to the bail motion.

Defendant Kelly Soo Park, 49, who authorities say worked as Uwaydah's office manager and personal assistant, was arrested last week. Investigators found evidence of forged documents on her computer in a folder labeled “Pinochio,” according to the district attorney's motion.

Two years ago, jurors acquitted Park of strangling 21-year-old Juliana Redding in her Santa Monica home in March 2008.

Prosecutors have previously said that Uwaydah gave payments totaling six figures to Park and her family before the slaying and before Park's arrest on the murder charge.

Uwaydah -- who wasn’t charged in Redding’s death and has denied any wrongdoing -- fled to Lebanon when he became a person of interest in the murder case, according to the bail motion, which said prosecutors looked into the fraud as a possible motive for the killing.

During Park's murder trial, a prosecutor told jurors that Redding was killed five days after her father broke off business negotiations with her ex-boyfriend, Uwaydah.

In court Friday, Park cried during the hearing and sometimes smiled at people in the audience.

Prosecutors also filed a motion this week asking a judge to remove an attorney representing one defendant, Terry Luke, who is accused of controlling some of the bank accounts used in the alleged scheme. Prosecutors noted that the defense attorney, Alan Jackson, previously worked for the district attorney's office and played a prominent role in the early stages of the murder case against Park.

Prosecutors argued that Jackson had a conflict of interest and that he and his firm should be excluded from the case. The motion said that during his work on the case as a prosecutor, Jackson had a D.A. investigator search more than 10 banks and 100 bank accounts, unearthing key evidence of fraud against some of the defendants, including his client.

During a court hearing last week, Jackson denied he had a conflict of interest. Kennedy has yet to rule on the motion.

For more news from the Los Angeles County criminal courts, follow @marisagerber and @lacrimes on Twitter.

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