Thirteen Los Angeles acupuncturists have pleaded guilty to charges that they bribed a state licensing official, and the district attorney’s office said there may be “at least 100 more” acupuncturists in the county involved in the licensing payoff scheme.
The guilty pleas followed the arrest of 43 suspects last month in a yearlong investigation by the district attorney’s office into the alleged sale of exam answers by a member of the California Acupuncture Examining Committee.
Committee Member Arrested
The committee member, Chae Woo Lew, was arrested in January and charged with 54 counts of conspiracy and bribery. He is scheduled to be arraigned April 7.
For the last eight years, Lew supervised the writing and grading of the yearly licensing exam, which is administered to about 500 acupuncture students who have completed a state-approved course of study.
District attorney’s investigators said they have evidence that Lew received more than $500,000 in bribes from students, most of whom were enrolled in Koreatown acupuncture schools.
The other acupuncturists arrested last month have either pleaded not guilty or have not yet entered pleas.
At the time of the arrest sweep, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner described the number of suspects and the amount of money involved in the alleged bribery scheme as “the tip of the iceberg.”
“We suspect 75% to 80% of the Korean acupuncturists locally may be connected to Dr. Lew by bribery,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Herb Lapin said this week, “which may mean at least 100 more illegally licensed acupuncturists out there.”
Those who pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor bribery charges were fined $150 and required to pay $200 to cover costs of the investigation, Lapin said.
The state attorney general’s office, which was informed of the investigation last week by the district attorney’s office, said it is looking into whether convicted acupuncturists should have their licenses revoked or suspended or whether they should be required to retake the licensing exam, Deputy Atty. Gen. Earl Plowman said.
The attorney general’s office will make recommendations to the Acupuncture Examining Committee, which has disciplinary power over licensing, Plowman said.
Plowman said that so far there is no evidence that the licensing-payoff scheme has affected the quality of acupuncture treatment in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Diamond, the committee’s executive officer, said the committee has not initiated an investigation.
State Sen. Herschel Rosenthal, (D-Los Angeles), who has proposed several bills for acupuncture regulation, criticized the committee for not undertaking an investigation into the alleged licensing payoffs.
Plowman said, “The committee members should be asking what will they do to repair the harm that has been done to the acupuncture profession. The AEC has got some hard decisions and hard times in front of it.”
Last week, the Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the Acupuncture Examining Committee, initiated an audit into the qualifications of committee members, department spokesman John C. Lungren said.
Plowman and Lapin indicated that many of those arrested last month may have been led to believe there was no chance of passing the acupuncture licensing exam unless they paid money to the committee member.
“There is a big difference between someone who bribes a committee member because he is incapable of passing the exam and one who believes that the bribe is an unspoken part of the examining system,” Plowman said. “Many of those arrested are probably not incompetent acupuncturists. They are, most likely, not people who deliberately set out to violate the law.”
Slowdown in Business
Since the arrests, Koreatown acupuncture schools and clinics have experienced a dramatic slow-down in business and have received inquiries about what is being done to clean up the problems surrounding the corruption, a school administrator said.
“Acupuncturists trying to practice in Koreatown are very hurting these days,” he said.
Those pleading guilty to bribery charges were Kwang Ok Lee, Joo Hyun Om, Jeang Woo Roh, Il Boo Myung, Soo Il Lee, Bong Yoon Cho, Myung Hee Ha, Un Suk Kim, Pung Ho Shin, Sang Yul Joo, Jong Hoon Yeum, Jong Won Yom and Myong Hui Kang. Nine suspects pleaded not guilty. Twenty-one others asked for continuances in efforts to reduce the charges filed against them.
Preliminary hearings for those who pleaded not guilty will begin April 26.