Charges stand in hep C case against former doctor

A prominent former Las Vegas physician and state medical board member who operated clinics where health officials say patients became infected with hepatitis C in 2007 will face all 28 felony charges filed against him almost two years ago, a state court judge decided Thursday.

Having lost a nearly two-year battle to show he is physically and mentally unfit for trial, Dipak Desai sat impassively in the courtroom while Clark County District Court Judge Valerie Adair ruled the grand jury indictment met statutory and constitutional requirements.

Adair conceded the charges could have been clearer. But she rejected defense attorney Richard Wright's argument that the 35-page indictment returned in June 2010 was unconstitutionally vague and confusing. Trial is scheduled in October.

Prosecutors allege that Desai directed a penny-pinching scheme at his Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada and Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center that included requiring staff to use anesthesia that remained in previously opened vials and to reuse colonoscopy scopes and bite plates from patient to patient during outpatient procedures.

Southern Nevada Health District officials in February 2008 began notifying more than 50,000 Desai patients to be tested for hepatitis and HIV. Authorities later determined that nine people contracted incurable hepatitis C, and said cases involving another 105 patients might have been related.

"It's clear what they are charging," the judge said Thursday. "They're charging that these people were infected as a result of their treatment at the facility and as a result of the facility's ongoing failure and disregard for appropriate medical and sanitary practices."

Wright derided the charging language as "prosecution by multiple guess or mystery." He accused prosecutors of alleging that hepatitis was transmitted "by methods unknown."

The defense lawyer sought dismissal of 15 counts in the indictment, including a key racketeering charge and seven felony charges each of criminal patient neglect and disregard for patient safety.

Wright said allegations of a pattern and practice of business amounting to felony racketeering didn't provide enough specificity for Desai and two former clinic nurse-anesthetists, Ronald Lakeman and Keith Mathahs, to mount defenses.

The three men are also charged with insurance fraud, theft and obtaining money under false pretenses. Each has pleaded not guilty.

"Principal? Aider and abettor? Conspirator? Which is he?" Wright asked. "This is not specific enough to determine what Desai is accused of doing on what date to what patient."

Prosecutor Michael Staudaher countered that Desai was "the one who was running the show."

"His specific role in these crimes overlaps. He is all of those things," Staudaher said.

Staudaher and prosecutor Pamela Weckerly have turned back months of effort by Wright to have Desai declared mentally and physically unfit for trial due the effects of strokes in 2007 and 2008.

Attorneys Michael Cristalli and Frederick Santacroce, representing Lakeman and Mathas, watched Thursday's arguments but didn't take part. Desai's wife, Kusum Desai, sat in the courtroom gallery.