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Fertility Doctor Wants a Second Opinion

Even when riding high and at the peak of his profession, Sergio C. Stone says, he kept a low public profile. “No one knew I existed,” he says softly.

How ironic that now sounds. How long ago those halcyon days must seem.

In real time, it was as recent as three years ago that Stone was doing the closest thing on Earth to God’s work: as one of the partners in UC Irvine’s Center for Reproductive Health, he was a surgeon who helped infertile couples have babies. The fertility clinic generated millions of dollars in income, enormous prestige for UCI and professional fame for its three partners. Stone was president-elect of the Pacific Coast Fertility Society.

It all began crashing down in 1994 amid a swirl of allegations about stolen eggs, misplaced embryos and billing irregularities. In mid-1995, facing a public relations firestorm, the university closed the clinic. From then on, its three partners--Stone, Ricardo H. Asch and Jose P. Balmaceda--were grouped in many people’s minds as a rogues’ gallery of out-of-control doctors.

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Stone, now 56, said virtually nothing publicly. Asch and Balmaceda left the country and haven’t returned. Stone, a Chilean immigrant who came to America in 1969, remained and eventually was charged with mail fraud in connection with insurance company billings from the clinic. Balmaceda and Asch also face mail fraud charges, while Asch is the only one of the three facing charges in connection with the theft of eggs.

Stone and I talked about the scandal over lunch last week at a Tustin restaurant. He fears being forever linked to the egg theft, although he has never been charged or identified as having taken part in that. And he insists he didn’t knowingly bilk insurance companies or, in regard to the clinic’s income, the university.

“I came to America with my wife and two little children and reached the top of my profession,” he says. “Respected everywhere. In six months [after news of the scandal broke], I was the talk of the town as unethical, immoral, a criminal. I lost my practice, the university suspended me and did not allow me to return. I have not worked since July of 1995. I cannot prove my innocence, and I am criminally convicted of an act that is done daily by professors in all the medical schools in the country.”

His last statement refers to the insurance forms that identify, among other things, who is present for the procedure being billed. Both a federal attorney who prosecuted Stone and the judge who heard the case dispute Stone’s contention that he followed widely accepted procedures. So does UCI. The trial judge, however, gave Stone a much lighter sentence than the six-month jail term prosecutors wanted. Instead, Stone received one year of home detention and a $50,000 fine.

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Assistant U.S. Atty. Wayne Gross says Stone couldn’t have submitted the insurance forms without intending to defraud. Nor could the jury have returned a guilty verdict if it didn’t believe there was intent, he says. Similarly, in a recent letter to the campus newspaper, UCI officials wrote, “It is not UCI practice, nor accepted ethical behavior, for a physician to bill for unlicensed trainees or the services of physicians who were not present during the surgery.”

Stone initially sought the interview with me because he is indignant over a recent state audit that concluded that he and his partners owe UCI $2.47 million in unreported income and interest from the clinic. Stone says he got no chance to provide what he says would have been explanatory, and exculpatory, information. Further, he says, some university officials know he reported the clinic’s income accurately but won’t come forward and say so.

During our 90-minute lunch, he admits to one misdeed: “There is one mistake I made at the beginning of this,” he says, “and that is, I didn’t separate myself from Asch and Balmaceda immediately. I have to acknowledge that, and I didn’t do it because I believed them.”

With that out of the way, he returns again and again to the theme that he is blameless of criminal or ethical wrongdoing.

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At various times, he likens himself to the powerless who have no voice. He speaks of the injustices he has suffered at the auditor’s hands. He speaks of the lack of integrity shown by top university officials who, he says, know he hasn’t bilked them. Strung together, Stone depicts a scenario in which people either have made him a scapegoat or, as with his jury and the auditor, misinterpreted his actions and intentions.

It would be easy to dismiss his denials as the industry standard for people who get caught. Yet Stone speaks with such quiet and seemingly genuine passion--and is willing to go into such detail on every point--that he’s not easily brushed off.

This conundrum persists: Are Stone’s blanket denials the classic rationalization of a gifted and otherwise beneficent man who, possibly for that reason, cannot admit to his own lapses? Or is he, indeed, both a scapegoat and a victim of misdirected justice?

He doesn’t ask you to believe the impossible. Only that juries have been wrong. That universities aren’t beyond seeking scapegoats in major scandals. That audits have been flawed. That professionals can make honest mistakes.

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And the backdrop for it all was the fertility scandal that traumatized the university and cried out for someone to pay for it.

Over the next three months, Stone faces two defining moments at which he will make arguments to powerful audiences. The state medical society and UCI are scheduled to decide, respectively, whether to revoke his medical license and whether to fire him. Stone assumes the university will fire him; he’s somewhat more optimistic about retaining his license.

If he loses his license? “You are talking to an individual who devoted his life since 1969 to a minute area within gynecology, within medicine. I have no abilities beyond this. I know everything about this, and nothing about everything else.”

In the next breath, however, he says he’ll survive. “This has made me stronger. I never had more inner peace in my mind than at this moment, because I feel so unjustly persecuted.”

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That sounds like martyrdom. Does he expect to live his life as one?

He shakes his head. “It’s going to go away,” he says. “In a year or two, when I’m free of all my legal problems, no one’s going to remember me. And I’m going to be a better man for it. I don’t regret anything.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821, by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail at dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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