Five tips from the Orange County Register's "Medical board reinstated convicted felons" story
My friend Christopher Farnsworth recently published a book called Blood Oath. It's about a vampire who works for the president. After a reading he gave last week, I asked him, "Knowing that you are only one book into a three-book deal, why did you decide to put Frankenstein, werewolves, a vampire and zombies all in the first book?" He said, "It's the Jack Kirby school of writing. If you have it, put it all in."
Chances are good that Orange County Register reporter Courtney Perkes didn't spend a lot of time reading Jack Kirby's comic books as a child, but she has managed to pack just about everything into the lead of her recent investigation, Medical board reinstated convicted felons. (You can see my Q&A with Perkes about her story here.)
In the past 10 years, the California Medical Board has reinstated the licenses of doctors who were convicted of sexually assaulting patients, defrauding insurance companies of millions and hiring hit men to kill their wives. Although some doctors spent as much time in prison as they did in medical school, they were most often able to show rehabilitation and given a second chance to treat patients.
Sexual assault, multi-million-dollar fraud AND murder? Could the story possibly live up to that lead?
Yes. So much so, that I had a tough time selecting just five tips from the piece. Here they are:
1. Find the right commentator. Reporters have a weakness for medical ethicists, and they certainly have their place in stories. But ethicists often haven't spent much time in the trenches. Perkes rightly chose to talk with Julianne D'Angelo Fellmeth, a San Diego attorney who was appointed by the state as an independent monitor of the Medical Board of California after an earlier Orange County Register investigation, which was co-authored by me. Fellmeth has been watching and reporting on the board for more than a decade, and that gives weight to her assessment: "There are some things that people have done, and I don't care how remorseful you are, you shouldn't get your license back."
2. Define the scope of your work. Perkes makes it clear up high what exactly she did.
The Orange County Register examined records of 123 doctors who sought reinstatement in the past decade after they lost their licenses for misconduct or negligence. More than half were able to satisfy a judge and the medical board that they were fit to practice. Among the 66 who were reinstated, 16 got into trouble again.
As a reader, you might say, "That's not a lot of doctors." But this is just the universe of doctors who had lost their licenses and then applied to get their licenses back. Is one out of four doctors re-offending an acceptable level? One of them was Dr. Andrew Rutland, a frequent guest on Antidote's pages.
3. Go to the code. Perkes smartly puts the situation into the proper context by explaining the medical board's mandate.
When disciplining doctors, state law emphasizes a goal of rehabilitation, but says "protection of the public shall be the highest priority." When those two are "inconsistent," the law says "protection shall be paramount."
4. Carefully choose the details. Perkes deftly backs up the bombast in her lead with short, detailed descriptions of doctors who have done the unthinkable and then gone back to practicing medicine. Here's one that just screams for a straight-to-DVD movie treatment.
Carlsbad dermatologist Vincent Nicholas Galluzzi pled guilty in 1997 to hiring an undercover police officer in an unsuccessful attempt to kill his ex-wife. According to board records, Galluzzi paid the cop a deposit of $1,000 and gave him his ex-wife's address and photo. The woman was not harmed, but Galluzzi was convicted and the medical board revoked his license in 1998.
Galluzzi was sent to R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility, state records show. He was released in 2000 and spent three years on parole before reapplying for his license. In making his case, he explained his anger over costly spousal support payments, expressed remorse for his crime and said he didn't realize until after his arrest that he suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
A judge hearing his request wrote, "The kind of aggressive feelings he had toward his ex-wife were never focused on his patients (or anyone else.)" The medical board reinstated his license in 2004. Galluzzi now practices in Modesto.
I see Tom Sizemore as Galluzzi and William H. Macy as the sympathetic judge. In a twist, though, the final scene shows Sizemore and Macy at a casino in Vegas, with Sizemore buying Macy drinks and bringing barely dressed women over to his table.
5. Read all about it. Perkes didn't just skim the medical board records looking for glaring examples. She found out as much as she could about these doctors and the circumstances surrounding their misdeeds. In the case of El Centro neurologist Thomas Tartaro, who was accused of sexually abusing female patients, Perkes writes:
Tartaro's reinstatement outraged one dissenting board member so much that, after he was elected to the state assembly, he authored a law banning felony sex offenders from practicing medicine. Tartaro, however, still has his medical license.
Linda Whitney, executive director of the medical board, said in a written statement that its reinstatement process provides the "most objective and independent method" of determining which doctors are rehabilitated. Rudy Bermudez, the former medical board member who wrote the sex offender law, put it differently.
"I think some of it goes to the doctor-God syndrome," Bermudez said. "The board means well but hasn't always done well."