'Spin Control' Out of Control : UC Irvine appears to have distorted truth in dealing with clinic scandal

It is now clear that UC Irvine's treatment of people who reported allegations of wrongdoing at the school's acclaimed fertility clinic was disgraceful. Rather than try to get the truth, the university tried to get rid of those seeking to tell it--an effort to silence both the message and the messenger.

The university appears (1) to have been caught lying about the reasons for confidentiality agreements with whistle-blowers, seemingly not about patient confidentiality at all but rather institutional protection and reparations for retaliation suffered, and (2)to have been caught lying about when it first got solid information of wrongdoing at the clinic. It's not a pretty picture.

State Senate and Assembly hearings, the most recent one on Wednesday, have shredded the university's attempt at "spin control." A former nurse at the UCI Medical Center said he reported that human eggs and embryos were being misappropriated as long ago as 1992, two years before the university started looking into the allegations. Other former employees trying to alert higher-ups to problems at the hospital's Center for Reproductive Health were either ignored or singled out for attack, according to the testimony. Outside auditors also found evidence of attempts to fire the whistle-blowers.

The university has closed the clinic and filed a civil lawsuit accusing three doctors of taking the eggs of some women without their knowledge and implanting them in others. The doctors, who operated the clinic, have denied knowingly doing anything wrong, and no criminal charges have been filed. Investigations remain under way.

The university had said its payment of more than $900,000 to three former employees of the center was not "hush money" but instead was to protect confidential information about patients. But as new details emerge, it appears that silence was the true aim of the university's actions.

In addition, the school steadfastly refused to release an audit of its dealings with the whistle-blowers until this week, when an edited portion was released at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Higher Education. The audit, conducted by two University of San Diego law professors, found that UCI retaliated against whistle-blowers from the UCI Medical Center who reported on activities at the Center for Reproductive Health. Tellingly, the audit also reported a climate of fear and distrust at the medical center.

UC Irvine says it has learned lessons in the controversy. One it should have learned is that the public, which finances the school, deserves a complete explanation of what was done and why. The university's handling of the crisis has complicated an already troubling situation involving oversight of a private venture in the setting of a public university.

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