Awand refuses to testify despite immunity, faces contempt charge

Imprisoned medical consultant Howard Awand refused to testify on Wednesday before a federal grand jury investigating fraud within the legal and medical professions.

His Los Angeles lawyer, Harland Braun, said Awand would not answer questions from prosecutors despite being given immunity and now faces a federal contempt charge. Awand appeared before the grand jury for about 30 minutes. Braun said Awand was questioned about four or five Las Vegas lawyers, but Braun refused to identify the lawyers.

Prosecutors believe Awand, 66, was the central figure in a network of lawyers and physicians that might have defrauded clients out of millions of dollars. Doctors within the group were alleged to have been shielded from malpractice lawsuits, and members shared kickbacks from legal settlements.

The investigation has been ongoing for several years, but so far only one doctor, Mark Kabins, and one lawyer, Noel Gage, have been convicted with Awand, the only defendant sentenced to prison.

Awand refused to testify on Wednesday because he felt he was being led into a perjury trap, Braun said.

"He does not trust the government at all," Braun said. "They’re looking for any little hook to charge him again."

Awand believes that had he testified, prosecutors would have found a way to charge him with perjury, which could have led to more prison time, Braun said.

Awand was sentenced in June to serve four months in prison after a conviction stemming from irregularities prosecutors uncovered in a medical malpractice case. He is serving the sentence concurrently with a four-year term from a separate conviction for failing to pay $2.5 million in income taxes. The government is pressing Awand to pay back the $2.5 million he owes the IRS.

Awand, who surrendered to federal authorities last month for his sentence, is appealing both convictions.

Braun reiterated Wednesday that his client does not believe he has any damaging information about lawyers to offer the government.

Braun said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre told him that he would ask a federal judge to hold Awand in contempt as a means to encourage his cooperation. A reluctant witness in contempt usually is jailed for the duration of the grand jury. The contempt process can be repeated when a new panel convenes.

The threat of jail time is usually enough to persuade a witness to testify, but Braun said he believes that won’t work because Awand is already behind bars.

"Holding him in contempt should have no effect on him." Braun said.

Awand’s confrontation with Myhre took place behind closed doors at the federal courthouse, where all grand jury matters are secret.

Myhre entered the second floor grand jury room at 1:25 p.m. and about 10 minutes later was followed by Braun, who by law had to remain in a waiting room.

Myhre declined comment as he entered the grand jury room, but he said he didn’t expect to be there very long. Both men emerged from the grand jury area at 2:10 p.m.

Braun said he was heading back to Los Angeles on Wednesday and didn’t know when Myhre would seek the contempt charge. Awand was expected to remain in federal custody in Las Vegas indefinitely, Braun said.

His troubles with the government stemmed from the handling of the medical malpractice case of Melodie Simon, who was paralyzed after spinal surgery in 2000. Two surgeons, John Thalgott and Benjamin Venger, were given immunity in exchange for their testimony.

Prosecutors alleged that Awand was the middleman in a conspiracy to protect Thalgott and Kabins, who operated on Simon. Gage, who represented Simon, sued anesthesiologist Daniel Burkhead instead of the surgeons.

Gage settled the case for $2.3 million, but prosecutors argued Simon was entitled to more compensation.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@review journal.com or 702-380-8135 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.

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