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Witness Claims Doctor Threatened Him : Medicine: The ex-partner of a Newport Beach cosmetic surgeon accused of malpractice says his former colleague tried to influence his testimony.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A nationally known cosmetic surgeon from Newport Beach threatened earlier this week to create professional and legal problems for his ex-partner if he did not change his testimony about a face lift on a former Mrs. California, the partner testified Thursday.

The testimony threatens to severely undercut Dr. Michael Elam’s defense against civil allegations of malpractice and insurance fraud and could also lead to criminal charges of witness tampering, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Barry Ladendorf in an interview after Thursday’s testimony.

“Any time someone tries to influence a witness to change his testimony, that, to me, shows the guy’s got something to hide--he doesn’t want the truth out,” said Ladendorf, who is representing the Medical Board of California in its attempt to take away Elam’s license.

Calling the testimony “sour grapes,” Elam said in an interview: “Look, I didn’t try to intimidate or threaten (the former partner). . . . I called because I wanted to find out what he was going to say so it wasn’t a big surprise. That was all.”

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The 41-year-old Elam, seen regularly on home-shopping cable shows promoting skin-care products, gained nationwide exposure and a long list of high-paying clients at his opulent office near Fashion Island after he helped redo comedienne Phyllis Diller’s face in 1983.

But he and ex-partner Frederick Berkowitz, 67, also of Newport Beach, now face revocation of their medical licenses by the state Medical Board for alleged malpractice and insurance fraud in connection with two former patients.

One of the patients, 55-year-old Bonnie Luebke, a 1984 Mrs. California pageant winner from Trabuco Canyon, testified last month before Administrative Law Judge Rosalyn Chapman in Los Angeles that Elam drugged her into signing consent forms in 1985 and then gave her a nose job and cheek implants that she “absolutely never, ever” wanted. She said Elam, insistent on doing the operation his way, promised: “I’ll make you look 30.”

The state hearing, expected to conclude next week, took a dramatic turn Thursday during Ladendorf’s cross-examination of Berkowitz, centering on a phone call Berkowitz got at home from Elam around 7 a.m. Tuesday.

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The topic, Berkowitz testified, was his knowledge of the Luebke operation.

Although Elam and one of his assistants have testified that Berkowitz assisted at the Luebke surgery, Berkowitz testified that he did not get into the office that day until after it was finished. Ladendorf asserted that office records support this.

Berkowitz testified Thursday that Elam tried to persuade him otherwise during their phone conversation.

Elam attempted to convince Berkowitz that “my memory wasn’t too good and that I couldn’t remember if I was there or not and that I should testify to that at cross-examination,” Berkowitz testified.

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And, Berkowitz said, Elam suggested that if he did not feign forgetfulness in court, he might face other problems: Elam’s testimony against him in a separate malpractice claim, as well as Elam’s exposure of lax record-keeping by Berkowitz and alleged drug use by two of his employees.

Berkowitz took this as a threat, he testified.

Elam, who was not present for the testimony, angrily said later: “Dr. Berkowitz doesn’t have a very good memory. . . . He’s got the whole thing confused. He’s taken all the facts and thrown them in a big pot and tried to cook something up against me.”

By calling Berkowitz, Elam said, “I wanted to find out what his particular plan was for his defense. We discussed what he was going to say and what he wasn’t going to say. This is basically what everybody does when they go on trial. . . . I was trying to encourage Dr. Berkowitz to tell the truth.”

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Elam also denied using the drug-use issue as a threat. He said he simply wanted Berkowitz to know that if he put his employees on the witness stand in his own defense, “he should realize that other things are going to come out--like the girls’ using drugs and all that.”

Elam’s attorney, Douglas Reynolds of San Diego, said he does not believe that his client did anything illegal.

However, Reynolds said, “it would certainly be better if he hadn’t (made the call). . . . There can be misunderstandings, so it’s not real advisable.”


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