By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times
February 8, 2012
Two clinics tied to 1-800-GET-THIN have temporarily halted Lap-Band weight-loss surgeries after the device’s maker said it would no longer sell to companies affiliated with the massive advertising campaign.
The two brothers identified in lawsuits as owners of the surgery centers also hired a top Los Angeles defense attorney to represent them in a flood of pending lawsuits. They retained John Hueston, a white-collar defense lawyer now at Irell & Manella who helped lead the Justice Department’s criminal prosecution of Enron Corp. executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling.
Those steps come days after Allergan Inc., the Irvine-based maker of the Lap-Band, said it would no longer sell the device to clinics affiliated with the marketing company. The Food and Drug Administration, California Department of Insurance and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are investigating the ad campaign and its affiliated surgery centers.
At least five Southern California patients have died since 2009 after Lap-Band surgeries at clinics affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and other public records. Each of the patients had been treated at surgery centers in Beverly Hills and West Hills tied to the ad campaign, according to the records.
“Unfortunately, recent allegations question the safety of the Lap-Band procedures at two centers,” the clinics said in a statement Tuesday. “While we strongly believe these allegations paint a false picture of the care provided and discount our capabilities and success rate, we have stopped scheduling new Lap-Band surgeries at those centers, effective immediately.”
The New Life Surgery Center in Beverly Hills and Valley Surgical Center in West Hills have stopped performing Lap-Band surgeries while they perform “a top-to-bottom medical and operational review” of their Lap-Band surgery business, the companies said.
The surgery centers are among several clinics affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN, whose ads for Lap-Band surgery have become fixtures on Southern California roadside billboards, radio, television and the Internet.
The Lap-Band is a ring that is surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage patients from overeating and help them lose weight. Allergan declined to say why it made the decision to stop selling the device to the surgery centers.
Tuesday’s announcement that the clinics would at least temporarily halt Lap-Band procedures comes as 1-800-GET-THIN and its affiliated companies face a stream of government investigations and civil lawsuits.
Among them is a whistle-blower lawsuit, filed by two former surgery center workers, that alleged unsanitary conditions at the clinics and accused the centers of billing insurers for medically unnecessary procedures and surgeries that were never performed. There are also several pending wrongful-death lawsuits and a lawsuit, filed by patients, accusing the firms of false advertising.
Hueston said he has agreed to represent brothers Michael and Julian Omidi in “all matters arising out of the lawsuits that have been filed with respect to 1-800-GET-THIN.” The two brothers have been named in lawsuits as owners of the marketing company. Hueston said he was unaware of any criminal investigations against them.
Further, Hueston has extensive experience in crisis management. His past clients include Angelo R. Mozilo, the former chief of mortgage giant Countrywide Financial Corp.
An opposing attorney who represents former surgery center workers said he believes hiring Hueston is a sign that the Omidis view the pending investigations as a serious matter.
“I think they do see the handwriting on the wall,” said Alexander Robertson, an attorney representing former surgery center workers. “They’re circling the wagons and getting ready for the onslaught.”
In a separate development, Dan E. Chambers, an attorney who represents the two surgery centers, sent a letter to the Los Angeles County coroner defending the treatment of a patient named Paula Rojeski, who died following Lap-Band surgery in September.
The letter challenged allegations in the whistle-blower lawsuit that a series of mishaps contributed to Rojeski’s death. The coroner’s office has not yet released the cause of Rojeski’s death, even though her autopsy was performed five months ago.