by Matt Kelley, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - More than 100 federal government doctors have been convicted
of crimes or disciplined by state medical boards, including one physician,
now treating veterans, who was convicted of helping a terrorist group, an
Associated Press review of medical licenses has found.
Federal agencies are required to check the backgrounds of doctors they
employ but are not prohibited from hiring those with criminal records,
revoked licenses or medical punishments.
All a doctor needs is a medical license valid in one state to get a
Dr. Suzy Melkonian, a blood-cancer specialist at a Department of Veterans
Affairs hospital in Los Angeles, was convicted 21 years ago in Switzerland
of extorting money for a group that staged terrorist bombings and
Melkonian was reprimanded five years ago by California for failing to
disclose her conviction when applying for a medical license.
Despite Melkonian's conviction, VA managers believed that her training
and patient care were good and that "she'd be a qualified member of our
staff," said Dr. Dean Norman, chief of staff for the Los Angeles VA
An AP review of medical-board disciplinary records identified at least
118 federal doctors who have worked for the government in the past two years
who were convicted of crimes or punished by state authorities for offenses
ranging from sex and drug abuse to incompetence.
Three of those doctors have been fired in recent months, including one
whose conviction for attempted child molestation should have legally barred
him from getting his job, and two who had relapses of conduct that prompted
In all, 0.5 percent of the more than 20,800 doctors employed by the
government have been convicted of crimes or punished, the records showed.
Nationally, the rate is 2.6 percent.
But advocates say the government's choice of doctors should be better
than the public at large, particularly because federal physicians serve
vulnerable, the underprivileged and those who fought to keep the country
"How many times do we have to get screwed over? Nobody seems to care
that much," said Sherri Siegle, a Choctaw nurse who worked for the Indian
Health Service (IHS). Siegle said she checked the backgrounds of doctors
her Oklahoma hospital and found several who had been previously
Fourteen punished doctors currently work for the IHS.
Punished federal physicians have treated veterans, soldiers, American
Indians, astronauts and federal prisoners.
At least five reprimanded for neglecting patients who died.
Eleven convicted criminals, including doctors who ordered child
pornography, defrauded Medicaid and stole drugs from the VA.
Eighteen punished for sexual misconduct, including a doctor
disciplined for having sex with five patients.
Thirty-seven punished for drug violations, including three whose
drug use forced them to leave surgeries and three federal prison doctors
now treat prisoners for drug abuse and other ailments.
The majority - 75 - work for the VA, the largest federal health-care
agency. Some veterans groups want VA Secretary Anthony Principi to
"If this is true - and these are some serious allegations - I assume
secretary will do something about it," said Dick Flanagan, a spokesman for
the group AMVETS.
Federal officials acknowledge screening processes are not always
Dr. Thomas Craig, the VA's chief medical officer, said overworked
hospital officials sometimes can miss problems or fail to check a doctor's
background thoroughly. The VA has a new computer system to assist background
Melkonian was convicted in 1981 of extorting about $6,000 from a Swiss
businessman to help the now-defunct Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation
of Armenia (ASALA), according to California medical-board records and news
ASALA, identified by the U.S. government as a terrorist group, claimed
credit for scores of bombings and assassinations, mostly of Turkish
Melkonian was arrested in 1980 after an explosion in her Geneva hotel
room led police to discover a partly assembled bomb. Afterward, ASALA and
splinter group began a bombing campaign aimed at freeing her and an ASALA
Melkonian denied being a member of the terrorist group. The Swiss court
convicted her of extortion, gave her an 18-month suspended sentence and
"These events have nothing whatsoever to do with my practice of
medicine," Melkonian, 46, said in a written statement. She attended medical
school in Chicago after leaving Switzerland.
The California Medical Board reprimanded Melkonian in 1997 for failing
disclose her conviction on her 1996 license application.
Her lawyer, Theodora Poloynis-Engen, said Melkonian did not know she
been convicted because Swiss authorities never told her and the court
proceedings were conducted in French, which Melkonian does not
Other punished federal doctors include:
Dr. Brian K. Bevacqua, head of anesthesiology at the VA hospital
in Madison, Wis. In 1987, Bevacqua pleaded guilty to ordering child
pornography and was sentenced to two years' probation and a $1,500 fine,
according to Pennsylvania and Ohio medical board and court records. He
declined to comment.
Dr. Robert H. Gerner, whose California license was suspended for
60 days in 1994 after he had sex with a patient during psychotherapy
sessions. Gerner now works at the VA hospital in Los Angeles.
Norman, the hospital's chief of staff, said hospital officials knew about
Gerner's punishment and required him to be supervised by another doctor.
Dr. Stephen John Davis, whose Michigan and Georgia licenses were
suspended for six months in 1993 on charges that he neglected one of his
nursing-home patients who died. Davis said officials at the Nevada federal
prison where he is now employed knew about the case when they hired him.
"It happened at the time when nursing homes were under fire, so I was
example," Davis said. "Well, that's life."
A federal job can be attractive to punished doctors because they would
not need malpractice insurance. Injured patients must sue the government,
not the doctor, for malpractice at federal facilities.
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"A lot of these guys have been sued and are fed up with medicine, so
come into the prison or the federal government health-care system," said
Fred McRae Roberson, who works at a Minnesota federal prison after being
penalized by Minnesota, Texas and Louisiana.