Forty-seven California acupuncturists were charged Friday in connection with an alleged seven-year scheme in which a state licensing official peddled answers to acupuncture licensing exams in return for at least $500,000 in bribes.
Investigators from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office swept through Koreatown and other areas of Los Angeles and Orange counties, arresting 16 Korean acupuncturists on charges of bribery. Others remained at large late Friday.
The sweep capped a yearlong investigation into allegations of corruption in the state’s acupuncture licensing system. Some practitioners have welcomed the scrutiny, hoping it will root out what one law enforcement official called a “cancer” in the community.
Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said it was possible that the arrests represented just “the tip of the iceberg.” There have long been suspicions of corruption in the state examination and licensing system, according to acupuncturists and students.
“They want these unqualified people out,” said Herbert Lapin, a deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. “Because if they do something wrong, it affects the entire acupuncture community, so that people will not go to them.”
According to Lapin, the alleged bribery scheme centered on Chae Woo Lew, who is believed to have accepted bribes ranging from $1,500 to $27,000 in return for divulging state exam answers during his two terms on the state’s Acupuncture Examination Committee.
Lew, who was arrested Jan. 21, allegedly worked through middlemen. Through them, aspiring acupuncturists who were unable to pass the exams obtained from Lew a special code that revealed the correct test answers, according to Lapin.
Investigators said they believe that the acupuncturists arrested Friday represent only a fraction of all the unqualified practitioners who may have become licensed with Lew’s alleged assistance. The amount of money involved may well have reached millions of dollars, they said.
“In terms of the length of time and potential amount of money involved, this is the largest single case of corruption that has come to light that I can remember,” Reiner said in an interview.
It could not be determined whether acupuncture patients had suffered as a result of poor treatment from unqualified practitioners. Hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians are believed to frequent acupuncturists for treatment of everything from pain to infertility.
One of the risks would be infection from unsterilized needles, medical experts said. For example, hepatitis has been known to be transmitted through acupuncture needles. French doctors recently reported a case involving the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS.
Reaction to the investigation and arrests has been mixed.
Officials of the acupuncture examination committee, which has licensed 3,000 acupuncturists, declined to comment Friday on the case. They said they could not predict whether the committee might consider revoking licenses as a result of the probe.
Dr. Peter Eckman, a committee member and San Francisco physician who is a close friend of Lew, said the committee will wait for the outcome of the prosecution of Lew and the arrested acupuncturists. He called the accusations “vague” but added, “Either way, it’s not good for the profession.”
Vincent Kim, president of Royal University, an acupuncture academy in Koreatown where, according to the district attorney’s office, a former dean and several former students have been implicated in the investigation, insisted that his school has not been involved and is not affected by the district attorney’s charges.
“The people who hate acupuncture and who have always hated acupuncture will have closed minds and say, ‘I always told you those guys were no good,’ ” said Dr. Ronald Katz, chairman of the department of anesthesiology at the UCLA School of Medicine, who has practiced acupuncture himself. “And the people who believe in acupuncture will say, ‘Well, there goes the Establishment again trying to stamp out anything that’s not traditional.’ ”
Acupuncture, in which long needles are passed through the skin, stimulating the nervous system, has been used in Asia for centuries. It became popular in the West during the 1970s. California was one of the first states to permit its practice.
Under laws passed by the California Legislature during the mid-1970s, acupuncture education and practice are overseen by the examination committee, an 11-member board appointed by the governor and Assembly Speaker and made up of physicians, acupuncturists and lay people.
The committee, under the Department of Consumer Affairs, has licensed about 15 training programs in California. Acupuncturists must undergo four years of training or receive an equivalent education elsewhere in order to sit for the state exams.
The exams cover 13 major subjects, ranging from anatomy and physiology to the use of herbs, diet and nutrition. At a committee hearing in Los Angeles last month, angry acupuncturists attacked the exams as subjective and the committee as aloof, politicized and secretive.
“It’s a crap shoot and everybody knows it,” said Neil Miller, who failed the exam last May but is appealing.
In an interview recently, Miller mused, “Do you think this test protects the public from acupuncturists who are not qualified? No way.”
Committee member Lew, a native Korean and resident of Hillsborough, Calif., is viewed by some as having played a pivotal role in developing acupuncture in the United States. He was appointed to the committee in 1981. According to Lapin, Lew authored and judged all the exams administered in Korean.
Lapin declined to say whether other committee officials are under investigation.
However, Joel Edelman, a member of the committee, has called for a state attorney general’s investigation into the board’s past practices. In a recent interview, Edelman accused other committee officials of trying to gloss over Lew’s alleged misconduct.
“Their attitude is nothing is wrong; Chae Lew was acting on his own,” said Edelman, a mediation lawyer in Santa Monica. “His actions didn’t affect us.”
According to Lapin, the probe intensified last August in response to reports of an extortion attempt in the Korean community. That incident later proved to be an effort by community members to compel Lew to pay for the education of the unqualified acupuncturists, and no charges were filed, Lapin said.
Several people familiar with Lew agreed to work with the district attorney’s office as informants, Lapin said. Wearing electronic listening devices, they collected evidence that Lapin said will prove in court that Lew repeatedly accepted the bribes.
“No one, or maybe one or two people, ever dealt directly with Lew,” Lapin said in an interview.
Instead, Lapin said, they paid one of several intermediaries who would then travel to the San Francisco area and give Lew the money.
The students, who Lapin said were not qualified to sit for the state exam, would then travel with the intermediary to San Francisco and meet with Lew. He said Lew would explain a system whereby key letters in exam questions would indicate the correct multiple-choice answers.
As an illustration, Lapin offered this hypothetical example: “If the first word in the question was ‘The,’ then the answer would be ‘A.’ If the last word of the question ended with '-ful,’ maybe the answer would be ‘B.’
“They were also told not to answer all the questions correctly, just get slightly over 70%, so that nobody would suspect what was going on.”
The passing grade for the exam is 70%.
As for the practical exam, Lew allegedly told candidates to simply underline a certain word on the first page. That marking served as a signal to Lew, who was judging the exams, that the candidate had paid up, Lapin said.
Lapin said he believes that the Korean test is no longer in use as a result of an experiment conducted by his office: An investigator took the test last summer and answered nearly every question correctly, persuading state officials “that we were onto something.”
Jonathan Diamond, the committee’s executive director, said in an interview last month that Lew had no role in designing the current test.
“We feel the exam is good,” he said. “There will be no changes.”
The acupuncturists targeted in Friday’s raid included 21 from downtown Los Angeles, eight from Orange County, six from eastern Los Angeles county and others from the South Bay, the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
Lew is scheduled to be arraigned on April 7 on 54 counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy to bribe.