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Drug-dealing doctor sentenced to seven years in prison

A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced a drug-dealing doctor who was once California’s top prescriber of narcotic painkillers and other commonly abused drugs to seven years in federal prison, saying he was being somewhat lenient because he did not want the 72-year-old physician to die behind bars.

“It fills me with shame to stand before you today,” Dr. Nazar Al Bussam told the judge shortly before he was sentenced. “I failed to live up to the standards I tried to set for myself. I can only hope for some opportunity to redeem myself, so help me God.”

As Al Bussam spoke in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom, his adult son put his head in his hands and quietly wept. His wife stared straight ahead, expressionless. Minutes later, the doctor was stripped of his tie, jacket, belt and watch and was led from the courtroom in handcuffs by U.S. marshals.

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U.S. District Judge S. James Otero imposed the sentence after telling the court he had read a Times report Wednesday that linked Al Bussam to the deaths of three patients to whom he had prescribed drugs and two other people who had drugs prescribed by him in their possession.

Authorities did not discover those deaths during their three-year probe of Al Bussam, who they said generated nearly $2 million in cash while recklessly prescribing addictive narcotics to drug addicts and dealers.

Before sentencing, prosecutors Ariel A. Neuman and Benjamin R. Barron brought the article to the judge’s attention, saying they thought he should be aware of it, but did not seek to enter it as evidence or to postpone sentencing to conduct further investigation.

Otero, after summarizing the report aloud in court, said it would be improper for him to consider the article for a number of reasons, including that it contained statements from people who had not testified in court. After imposing the sentence, the judge said that if he had considered the “very troubling” information in the article and found the doctor responsible for the deaths, he probably would have imposed the nearly 20-year sentence prosecutors had requested.

Prosecutors depicted Al Bussam as a greed-driven opportunist who exploited his patients’ addictions. Not only did he give patients the drugs they asked for, he suggested additional addictive drugs to undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as patients who said nothing to indicate they needed them, according to prosecutors. At times, he wrote prescriptions for such quantities and combinations of pills that they were potentially lethal even if taken as directed, a prosecution medical expert was set to testify.

Al Bussam’s attorney, Benjamin N. Gluck, acknowledged that his client had committed serious crimes, but said not all of his patients were drug addicts and that the doctor had done many good works over the years. He told the judge that Al Bussam had gone out of his way to help patients who did not have insurance and couldn’t afford medical care.

Coroner records cited by The Times showed that Al Bussam prescribed drugs to three patients who died of overdoses in 2007 and 2008. Two other people died — one from an overdose, the other by falling off a cliff — with drugs in their systems and pill bottles bearing Al Bussam’s name in their possession.

Gluck told The Times that Al Bussam had reported to police that some of his prescription pads had been stolen and that some prescriptions had been falsely attributed to him in the past. The lawyer suggested that those factors could result in his being falsely linked to a person’s death.

The sister of a 30-year-old man who fatally overdosed, according to coroner records, a day after being prescribed methadone by Al Bussam said she was disappointed by the sentence.

She said that if Al Bussam’s age was a factor at all, it argued for a harsher sentence, not a lighter one.

“It seems like for his age, he should have known what he was doing was wrong,” she said.

scott.glover@latimes.com

lisa.girion@latimes.com


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