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Beauty regimen, epiphany, testimony will not spark respect for surgeon

Neurosurgeon Ben Venger looked into my eyes with all the sincerity he could muster and denied he had become a government witness. The truth was, he had, and we both knew it.

Ben and I share a unique relationship. Once a month on a Thursday night, we see each other at the hair salon — both of us doing our best to look younger with skilled help from our colorist and stylist.

In 2005, after I began writing about the FBI investigation into doctors and lawyers allegedly conspiring to make more money by running up settlement costs, Ben would pump me about what I had heard about the investigation.

When I heard he had become a government witness, I asked him, but he insisted it wasn’t true. Nor was he quite so friendly after that. After I confirmed and printed in June 2007 that he was going to testify for the government in exchange for immunity, Ben Venger stopped talking to me at our monthly beautification encounters.

In fact, when I would politely say “hello,” he would ignore me. I was OK with that; after all, I wasn’t the one who had taken more than $400,000 in kickbacks to refer patients to medical consultant Howard Awand. I wasn’t the one who lied in depositions and trials about the cause of injuries. If Ben wanted to cut me off, it didn’t bother me.

But knowing he lied to my face made me wonder whether a federal jury would believe him when he took the stand Monday against attorney Noel Gage and mea culpaed. Heck, I wondered if I would believe him.

Somehow, I felt sorry for Ben as he described his misdeeds and admitted his lies. He hadn’t hurt any patients, he’d only been pimping for a better lifestyle. Earning $3 million a year wasn’t enough for him.

“I never felt 100 percent comfortable with the money, but I took it,” he said.

I wondered what made Ben decide to turn on Awand and Gage. His explanation: “I came to the awakening it was wrong, that’s when I went to the government.” Again and again, Ben defended his lies and deception saying, “Howard Awand told me to.” Sounded like Awand was on trial that day, not Gage.

But Ben also described a call from his wife, who said Awand and Gage had traumatized her in the fall of 2003. That’s when Ben decided he’d had enough and no longer wanted to be part of the conspiracy that protected him from malpractice lawsuits from the lawyers working with Awand.

I missed his wife’s testimony, but the Review-Journal’s Adrienne Packer wrote that she went to pick up a $216,000 check from Awand, a check her husband considered a kickback for referring a case ultimately worth $18 million to Awand.

JoAnn Venger quoted Gage as telling her: “We can ruin your husband.” She said he and Awand wanted her husband to take patients they sent to him more quickly. “Howard Awand could not understand why my husband did not have an open-door policy to his practice. He would expect an appointment the next day. He could keep the cases moving quickly that way,” she testified.

From the testimony so far, the government’s case against Awand, scheduled for trial this fall, looks powerful. If Awand opted to become a government witness, he could testify against some of the doctors and lawyers whose names have been mentioned repeatedly in the investigation.

Ben named names on the stand. He said that besides Gage, Awand worked with attorneys Robert Vannah, Robert Eglet, the late Randall Mainor, Robert Cottle and others, including Richard Harris, who also became a cooperating government witness in the investigation.

According to Ben, the doctors Awand worked with included Mark Kabins, Mark Kraft, Derek Duke, Michael Prater, Patrick McNulty, Thomas Dunn, Brian Lemper and John Thalgott, the other major government witness. None of these doctors and lawyers has been charged with anything.

Even though he lied to me, even as he admitted he had lied under oath before, I ended up believing Ben Venger.

Any respect for him, however, is long gone.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.

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