By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by Jack GouldDr. G. Steven Kooshian was on the telephone one recent morning, trying to spin me. In two articles, I had reported on two lawsuits alleging that the prominent Newport Beach doctor dispensed fake AIDS drugs in an illegal moneymaking scheme.
The 50-year-old physician spoke slowly, often pausing for three or four seconds to carefully select his words. It was his "sincere wish" to answer questions about allegations that have rocked Southern California's medical and gay communities. Never mind the lawsuits; the stories, he said in his aristocratic Virginia accent, have "slaughtered" his reputation.
But each time I tried to ask a question, the doctor spoke over me, explaining that he wanted to be forthcoming but couldn't because of unspecified legal ramifications.
"I have innocent people I need to protect," Kooshian said, nearly whispering. "I am not going to be able to talk to you now."
The conversation—if you could call it that—was typical of several communications I'd had with Kooshian during the past month. In phone conversations, e-mails and voice-mail messages, the doctor was often gracious—at one point telling me, "I'd love to hate you, but I don't. I know you're just doing your job." But he was always evasive and contradictory. While steadfastly refusing to field a single serious question, he has spoken at length in vague terms, denying any wrongdoing and complaining that he is the target of a conspiracy he refuses to describe—except for one clue.
"Investigate Virgil," Kooshian said coyly.
Virgil Opinion of Costa Mesa was the doctor's top nurse for 11 years. In February, Kooshian allegedly ordered him to secretly inject a seriously ill AIDS patient not with an expensive dose of Epogen but with worthless saline solution. Opinion says it wasn't the first time he had been ordered to swap drugs for saline, but it turned out to be the last. His conscience had been "killing" him, Opinion said. The 42-year-old Filipino immigrant abruptly quit, sought psychiatric care and, in April, filed a wrongful termination complaint with the state employment commission, claiming that workplace "illegalities" made it impossible to continue in his former job. He says Kooshian made several attempts to hire him back to "keep me quiet."
But Opinion instead retained veteran Irvine attorney Eric Lampel and revealed his story. He alleges that Kooshian had for years systematically ripped off countless patients—mostly gay men—by charging them for expensive drugs after injecting them with a liquid multivitamin mix or saline.
Lampel investigated the case and then proposed a private settlement. Negotiations failed, and on July 27, the attorney filed suit against Kooshian in Orange County Superior Court. Two weeks later, Bryan Noble—a former Kooshian patient—hired Lampel and filed an assault and battery complaint alleging he had been injected with bogus drugs without his knowledge.
Noble's key witness: Opinion, the nurse who administered Kooshian's shots.
To both Noble and Kooshian, Opinion's credibility is key. A former Laguna Beach resident and high-profile AIDS activist, Noble said he trusts Opinion. Kooshian originally shared that sentiment. In his first conversation with me in mid-July, Kooshian described Opinion as "a very good employee." A few months before that, Kooshian documented that evaluation: in April, after Opinion had quit and was contemplating going public with his allegations, Kooshian sent his former nurse a greeting card with a drawing of a red heart.
"I just want you to know how much I appreciate you for all you do," wrote Kooshian. "Thank you again. We all miss you; I miss you."
As the lawsuits and, now, a state medical-board investigation proceed, the doctor apparently has had a change of heart. Through his attorney, Kooshian—who was arrested and convicted of illegally selling steroids after an undercover police investigation in the early 1990s in Newport Beach—now describes Opinion as a "poor worker" on the verge of being fired when he quit. There were other contradictions. In one conversation, Kooshian claimed he could not legally talk about Opinion. But in another, he suggested that his ex-nurse has credibility problems because he may like to party in his spare time and roam adult websites at night.
"I'm not going to dignify that sort of trash talk about my client," said Lampel. "But even if it were true, so what? Kooshian thinks those kinds of irrelevant claims are going to save him from his outrageous injection scams? I don't think so."
But to Kooshian, the media—specifically the Weekly—has made a mistake by not focusing on Opinion. When I asked for an explanation, Kooshian played coy again. He told me to obtain a copy of a "May or June" letter he received "that will put Virgil and his team of attorneys in a totally different light." Though he says he has the letter in his possession, Kooshian refused to provide me with a copy or to answer a single question about a document he portrays as Exhibit A in his defense.
"If you get a copy of that letter, I am confident you will see the true story," the doctor said. "And I believe you are smart enough that you then won't need to ask me any more questions."
When pressed about the nature of the letter—which turns out to be a settlement offer from Lampel—Kooshian responded, "I would not characterize it as an offer. It was something stronger than an offer."
Kooshian attorney Eric Davis was more specific. "It looks to me like they [Opinion and Lampel] are just trying to blackmail somebody out of money," he said.
Though he laughed when told about Davis' characterization, Lampel said he was not amused. He also declined to release the May 25 letter, describing it as a confidential communication to Kooshian about the doctor's alleged wrongdoing.
"The letter they are talking about was a standard pretrial demand letter that you'd see in almost any civil case," said Lampel. "I tried to get an appropriate settlement for my client and to encourage Dr. Kooshian to clean up his atrocious medical act. It certainly was not blackmail. I can assure you that crimes definitely have been committed in this case, but none of them have been committed by me or Virgil."
Kooshian insisted his refusal to accept Lampel's May settlement proposal demonstrates his innocence.
"I had the opportunity to save myself the embarrassment this has caused," he said. "But I elected not to do it."
Lampel remembers the negotiations quite differently. The two sides met for hours, he says, but then Lampel's deadline passed and Opinion filed his complaint. Kooshian never rejected the settlement, Lampel asserts. "I think he seriously believed this was going to go away," he said.
On Aug. 12, Kooshian responded to my calls and e-mail message from three days earlier. The doctor was upset because he believed I had ignored his tip about investigating Opinion and the May 25 letter.
"I gave you a piece of information that could have set the record straight and made it apparent to you what was behind this stream of events," he wrote in an e-mail. "And you chose to ignore it. . . . What is left is for a more responsible journalist to be interested in the truth and print the truth!"
Kooshian—the doctor so adamant about getting dirt printed on his ex-nurse and chief accuser—then did something I've come to expect from him: he contradicted himself.
"I don't intend," he wrote, "for this to play out in the press."