A 79-year-old cardiologist from Florida was sentenced Tuesday to serve six years in federal prison and to pay $4.6 million in restitution for his role in defrauding a $3.6 billion settlement trust with funds for Fen-Phen diet drug plaintiffs who alleged they experienced heart injuries.
Dr. Abdur Razzak Tai was convicted of 13 counts of mail and wire fraud in a scheme to get paid for medical reports by falsely certifying that the Fen-Phen claimants whose echocardiograms he reviewed were so injured by diet drugs that their heart valves were leaking blood. In some instances, Tai did not personally review the echocardiograms that were instead reviewed by an assistant Tai hired.
While Tai’s counsel, Victor D. Martinez, asked that Tai be allowed to stay out of prison on appeal, U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered Tai to serve his sentence immediately because the judge said he could not take any chance that Tai would continue practicing medicine while his appeal was pending. Sanchez pointed out Tai saw patients between the verdict against him and his sentencing.
Sanchez also cited federal investigators’ interviews with patients who were not advised that they would need to transition to another cardiologist and who also had appointments set in the future after Tai’s sentencing.
Sanchez said Tai defrauded the trust and Wyeth, the drugmaker of Fen-Phen. Wyeth is now owned by Pfizer.
While Martinez, of Tampa, Fla., said that he could understand prosecutors’ frustration that his client did not take several opportunities to plead guilty and required the government to prove its charges beyond a reasonable doubt, he said that because of his client’s hardheadedness, arrogance and inability to understand, Tai had the "competency" to stand trial, but he did not have the "capacity" to understand the gravity of his circumstances, Martinez said, as he asked the judge to sentence Tai to home confinement.
Giving Tai less of a sentence would diminish the message sent about the seriousness of his crime, Sanchez said.
Sanchez did depart down from a guideline sentence of 108 months to 187 months in prison because of Tai’s age and medical history.
Tai was asking for "total immunity and impunity," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul G. Shapiro.
Robert Allen Mitchell Jr., an attorney who oversaw the AHP Settlement Trust created to administer the settlement agreement between Wyeth and the plaintiffs’ class action counsel from 2002 to 2008, testified that the average payment out of the trust was $400,000.
Mitchell, according to a court transcript, also testified that claimants did not have to prove that Fen-Phen had caused their valvular heart disease, only that they had taken the drugs and had the requisite conditions under the settlement agreement.
Dr. Maria Colon, who reviewed Tai’s medical records and testified on his behalf, said that due to several health problems, including congestive heart failure that involves, among other issues, valvular heart disease, diabetes and early dementia, that Tai’s life expectancy is two to three years even without being sentenced to prison. Colon practices in the area of internal medicine for the federal Veterans Administration.
One irony in the case is that Tai, who himself had valvular heart disease, found that some patients had severe problems with their heart valves when they did not, Shapiro said.
Another irony in the case is that Tai continued to practice medicine after the jury verdict against him in order to make money, and Tai also engaged in the Fen-Phen fraud also to make money, Shapiro said.
If Tai was placed in prison considering his "arrogance that doctors are guilty of, I would think an environment" in which he would not be in control would be like a death sentence, Colon said.
"You might as well as send him to the electric chair in Texas," Colon said. "It’s a death sentence. I don’t think he will do well."
Under cross-examination by Shapiro, Colon did say that his cholesterol numbers were ones that a man in his 50s would be proud of, that depression would be expected from anyone facing prison time, and that Tai’s other medical problems, including heart problems, are long-standing ones.
The judge also asked Tai, if the federal prison system has as good of treatment for inmates as any outpatient provider on the outside, if Tai would do OK in the prison system. The doctor confirmed that was so.
During the trial, one of the attorneys who referred claimants’ echocardiograms to be reviewed by Tai, Everette Scott Verhine of Vicksburg, Miss., testified against the cardiologist. Tai claimed that Verhine had forged his records.
The judge also ordered Tai to pay a $15,000 fine immediately and stop practicing medicine upon his release from prison.
Tai is not the only person who has been found to be involved in taking more funds than they were entitled to out of the Fen-Phen settlements.
Just this past week, mass torts attorney Stanley M. Chesley was disbarred by the Kentucky Supreme Court because his $20 million Fen-Phen fees exceeded the $12 million he was due from his contracts with his clients and co-counsel, according to that court’s opinion. Chesley had served as a member of the management committee in Pennsylvania federal district court.
In 2011, a former state judge, Joseph F. "Jay" Bamberger, was permanently disbarred by the Kentucky Supreme Court because he signed off on a deal that gave attorneys nearly two-thirds of the settlement, or $126 million, according to the Associated Press. Four attorneys who took part in the settlement also lost their licenses, according to the AP.