Beleaguered fertility doctor Ricardo H. Asch has sold his Newport Beach home, fueling fears that he and former partner Jose P. Balmaceda have left the country for good.
County property records reveal that Asch, one of three physicians implicated in the UCI fertility clinic scandal, sold his $1-million residence in the gated community of Big Canyon last month, about the time that federal agents raided the home and Asch's Santa Ana medical office in search of evidence.
News of the sale came after investigators began fretting over the possibility that both Asch and Balmaceda are cutting their ties to the United States and have fled the country before any criminal charges can be filed--or civil judgments rendered--against them.
Asch suspended his Santa Ana medical practice about a month ago and left the country for Mexico and Europe. Balmaceda left for Chile more than two months ago. His Corona del Mar home was sold in July, and his medical office in Laguna Hills is being closed in early November.
In July, Asch also sold an oceanfront, $2-million Del Mar property.
"Frankly, we are concerned that the physicians may not be around to expedite or help with resolution of [the] issues" raised by allegations of human egg and embryo thefts at the UCI fertility clinic, said one source familiar with the multifaceted investigations of the doctors.
Attorneys for both Asch and Balmaceda insist that the two doctors plan to return to this country. Asch's criminal attorney, Ronald G. Brower, said Monday that the doctor sold the home because he needs the money for legal expenses.
Asch, Balmaceda and a third partner, Sergio C. Stone, have been accused by UC Irvine of misappropriating human eggs and embryos, insurance fraud, financial wrongdoing and research misconduct. They also are the subject of outside investigations into possible mail fraud, the smuggling of fertility drugs and tax evasion. Attorneys for the three have steadfastly denied any intentional wrongdoing by the doctors.
The doctors all face hefty legal bills because the University of California has refused to pay for their defense in 10 civil suits filed by former patients. The university argues that the doctors' actions fell outside the scope of their employment.
Even before the fertility scandal broke, both Asch and Balmaceda had strong personal and financial ties abroad and practiced routinely at clinics in Europe and Latin America. Asch is a native of Argentina, and Balmaceda was born in Chile.
Stone's attorney said he occasionally travels abroad, but has no plans to leave the United States permanently.
Although Asch was still in the country at the time of the Sept. 19 raids at the physicians' homes and offices, he left shortly afterward for a long-planned "speaking tour" of Mexico and European countries, Brower said. The doctor has closed his Santa Ana medical practice only temporarily, Brower said, because federal investigators would not allow him to retrieve or copy patient files seized in the raids.
Brower insisted that Asch's family is still here, living in a leased home in an undisclosed location. "He has a residence in Orange County," where his wife, Silvia, and three of his children are staying, Brower said.
Brower said he had spoken with the doctor a few days ago, when Asch was in a European country where he was guest speaker at a fertility conference. "He's still a few weeks away from coming back" to the United States, but "he told me he's coming back and that's why his family is still here," Brower said.
The Newport Beach man who purchased Asch's home, Ernie J. Beigel, said Monday he bought it through an agent, had never met Asch, and was never told of the circumstances leading to the sale.
Balmaceda's attorney, Patrick Moore, could not be reached Monday. But he said more than a week ago that his client is tending to his sick mother in Chile and will return to the United States.
Should Asch and Balmaceda elect to remain overseas, attorneys have said there is no way to oblige them to return to the United States unless criminal charges are filed and they become subject to extradition. Even then, there is no guarantee that the countries where they are residing will agree to extradite them.
Some attorneys who have sued Asch and his two partners on behalf of former patients are worried. If the doctors liquidate their assets and settle abroad, their clients could have a tough time recovering any judgments levied against the doctors personally, they said.
"Of course, [their absence is] of grave concern to me," said Larry Feldman, a Santa Monica attorney who represents three families in litigation stemming from the fertility scandal.
If the university is successful in its argument that it is not liable, "there might not be any place for the victims of their wrongdoing to seek redress. We could win [a judgment] and not collect a penny. It could be an empty verdict."
But Feldman and other attorneys hastened to argue that they believe the university is liable for negligence in its supervision of the doctors' practice.
Walter G. Koontz, a Newport Beach attorney who has sued the three physicians, said he will pursue any judgment he can get from the courts, whether or not Asch and Balmaceda return. He said the Hague Conventions make it possible to pursue civil judgments against defendants in other countries that honor the international agreements, although the process can be costly and time-consuming.
Melanie Blum, a Santa Ana attorney representing several patients, said plaintiffs could also win the right to seize any remaining U. S. assets of the doctors.
But patients may be robbed of the emotional redress they most anxiously seek, she said.
"A lot of clients just want their day in court with the doctors and they'll never have that if [Asch and Balmaceda] don't come back."