Dr. Dipak Desai, the physician at the center of the hepatitis C outbreak, has been "exaggerating" the effects of two strokes, state medical experts testified Friday.
The three experts, part of the team that evaluated Desai for six months at Lake’s Crossing, the state’s secure mental hospital in Sparks, all concluded during their testimony that Desai was competent to stand trial on criminal charges stemming from the 2007 hepatitis C outbreak.
All three testified from Lake’s Crossing by video during a daylong hearing in Las Vegas before District Judge Kathleen Delaney.
Desai’s lawyers sought the hearing to challenge the experts’ findings.
After seven hours of questioning from lead Desai lawyer Richard Wright and prosecutors Mike Staudaher and Pamela Weckerly, Delaney asked for written closing arguments from each side by Tuesday and promised a decision later.
Dr. Steven Zuchowski, a psychiatrist who had the most contact with Desai during his Lake’s Crossing evaluation from March to September, testified that Desai did not cooperate fully with his evaluators and deliberately tried to make himself look bad.
"His current functioning is not of a severe, brain-damaged or demented individual," said Zuchowski during four hours of testimony. "I think his behavior over six months’ time demonstrates competency despite his attempt to look more incompetent than he is."
Zuchowski acknowledged that strokes in 2007 and 2008 damaged Desai’s brain causing him memory and other cognitive problems, but that he still "meets the requirements" to stand trial.
"I do believe he has some cognitive deficits, but he is definitely exaggerating those deficits," Zuchowski testified.
‘AMAZED AND MYSTIFIED’
The psychiatrist added that he was "amazed and mystified" that Desai had not sought "intensive cognitive rehabilitation" after his strokes, the last and most serious of which occurred after the hepatitis C outbreak was made public in 2008.
Desai, 61, was in court for the hearing. Dressed in a black suit, he sat at the defense table and stared straight ahead through the majority of the hearing, never talking to his nearby lawyers. His wife and daughter sat in the audience and took notes on legal pads.
The gastroenterologist, who has been diagnosed with depression, is set to stand trial on March 12 with two of his nurse anesthetists, Keith Mathahs and Ronald Lakeman. All three defendants are facing felony charges, including racketeering, insurance fraud and neglect of patients.
The charges revolve around seven people who authorities say were infected with the potentially deadly hepatitis C virus at Desai’s clinics.
ABLE TO DISCUSS POLITICS
When meeting with his evaluators, Desai professed to have severe memory problems, not fully understanding what was happening around him, Zuchowski testified. But when interacting with staffers and others at the hospital, he was able to discuss politics and current events in detail, Zuchowski said.
In one conversation with a staffer, Zuchowski said, Desai was critical of President Barack Obama, saying he was "practicing Chicago politics." Desai also talked about the merits of socializing health care.
Zuchowski said Desai also was observed watching television and reading the newspaper during his stay at Lake’s Crossing.
Sally Farmer, a clinical and forensic psychologist, testified that she, too, concluded Desai was exaggerating his physical impairments.
"More and more data was accumulating that he was not being honest about his symptoms," she said. "I believe he was exaggerating the extent of his memory deficits at Lake’s Crossing."
Farmer testified that Desai was a different person outside her presence, carrying on "reciprocal, rational conversations" with others at the mental facility. He also was adept at avoiding patients who could create problems for him and was able to conform to the facility’s daily schedules and routines.
‘EVIDENCE OF MALINGERING’
Desai scored so low on several tests she administered that she came to the conclusion he was deliberately attempting to do poorly, Farmer said.
Dr. Lindell Bradley, a psychiatrist who came in at the end of Desai’s stay at Lake’s Crossing to do a final evaluation, testified that Desai had demonstrated to him "clear evidence of malingering."
His physical impairments were "fairly minimal," Bradley added.
Desai, who knew the final interview with Bradley was critical, showed memory and other cognitive impairments that were "not consistent with the capabilities" he previously had shown at Lake’s Crossing, the psychiatrist said.
Contact reporter Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-8135.