When the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners undertook an investigation of his practice, Dr. Ralph Conti knew how to act in his best interest.
He thumbed his nose at the agency, not once but twice.
In both 2008 and 2010, the board told him to hand over information and to show up for a hearing on matters pertaining to a complaint of his alleged involvement in an experimental procedure in which human tissue was implanted into patients without their informed consent.
The 50-year-old Conti, according to 2011 board documents, "willfully failed" on both occasions to do as asked.
So what did board members do after he essentially told them twice to get lost?
In June they handed down a public reprimand, along with an order to pay about $8,000 in fines and investigative costs.
How can you not admire the multimillionaire Conti’s strategy in handling the board? A winning handshake from San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh would have been tougher on him.
Lyn Beggs, general counsel for the board, said that the law doesn’t allow her to discuss why the board took the action it did. Conti’s PR lady, Cheryl Persinger, said her client can’t comment.
The board’s dealings with Conti over a three-year period came to light recently when he was indicted Oct. 12 on federal conspiracy and fraud charges. He pleaded not guilty to charges of participating in a scheme to defraud investors and chronically ill patients through the use of experimental stem cell implant procedures.
The indictment alleges Conti injected stem cells — which he harvested from placentas — "knowing they would not benefit patients," and caused many people trying to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis to acquire infections.
The government wants Conti and his partner, Alfred Sapse, to forfeit more than $900,000 it alleges was made from the scheme.
It’s clear from 2008 documents that the medical board had more than an inkling of what Conti may be up to, even naming 18 patients he allegedly implanted.
One document says that Conti "failed to examine or obtain a complete history for the patients prior to performing the procedures and you failed to follow up with the patients following the procedure."
Some Las Vegas doctors who are following Conti’s case in the press don’t believe that if they were to use his strategy with the board they’d be treated the same way.
In fact, they requested anonymity for fear that the board would find a reason to go after them.
"I’d lose my license for sure if I did what he did," said an internist. "He had to have gotten special treatment. To basically just ignore the board and have nothing happen is just incredible."
The chief of staff at a hospital thinks the board’s handling of Conti’s case hurts the credibility of the agency.
"It’s obvious there are double standards in how the board deals with cases," he said.
A surgeon believes "it’s obvious that Conti knows someone on the board."
Isn’t it a shame when healers, who should see the glass as half full instead of half empty, are so cynical?
I have to believe what Doug Cooper, the executive director of the board, has told me repeatedly, that the same high standards are enforced for every doctor. After all, it took months in 2008 for the board to take real action against Dr. Dipak Desai, even though medical experts believed he was the man behind the largest hepatitis crisis in American history.
Maybe, just maybe, the board did give a Conti a slight break after finding out what a great guy he is.
Maybe they knew how wonderfully Conti dealt in 2006 with Deanna Wise, the mother of one of his young patients who was dealing with a high-risk pregnancy.
While other doctors were trying to save her life and that of her unborn child at St. Rose Dominican Hospital-Sienna — they succeeded — Conti interrupted to ask her, as she sobbed hysterically, if she would mind if he took her placenta for research.
What other doctor would have had a big enough heart to try to take a patient’s mind off a life-and-death situation?
Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.