Dr. K KOd

OC Weekly series leads to federal indictment of celebrated AIDS doctor

Key sources familiar with Dr. Kooshian's office confirmed Opinion had repeatedly protested the doctor's practices. "You can bank on what Virgil has told you," said one source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He just didn't concoct these things."

* * *

Kooshian was a popular figure in the local gay community—popular and powerful. A Virginia native, he launched his medical practice in 1981 after his residency at UC Irvine. He has been hailed for his community service, Southern charm and warm bedside manner.

But the AIDS controversy wasn't his first legal brawl. In 1991, Moxley discovered, state police raided two of his Orange County medical offices after an undercover narcotics sting. According to law-enforcement files, authorities confiscated various drugs related to illegal steroids production and arrested Kooshian. He eventually was charged with 14 felony counts, including prescribing drugs without a legitimate purpose and prescribing drugs to individuals who were not his patients. The doctor blamed his crimes on emotional distress in his personal life and received a reduced sentence of three years' probation and a $20,000 fine.

Board records obtained by the Weeklyshowed that Kooshian completed the probation in 2000. In the same documents, the doctor admitted his conduct in the steroid case "constituted an extreme departure from standards of care and represents a lack of knowledge or ability in the practice of medicine." He said he was "ashamed and humiliated by the realization of his unprofessional conduct."

But by that time, the public focus on AIDS helped Kooshian create a new business model and a new reputation. Boosted by his AIDS specialization, Kooshian moved into a $5 million, five-bedroom mansion on 17,300 square feet in exclusive Newport Coast. The press began to take notice. In a 1997 article, TheOrangeCountyRegistercongratulated the wealthy doctor for his charitable impulse: on his 40th birthday, a reporter said, Kooshian held a party for himself. In lieu of gifts, he asked friends to donate money to children with AIDS. The event generated almost $17,000. That same year, the Registernoted that Kooshian had "become well-known" in the AIDS community.

"In the early days" of AIDS medicine, Kooshian told the paper, "we offered a comforting hand, an understanding ear—someone to make you comfortable when that day came. Now, my spiel is: hope and hard work."

His spiel also included a kind of crusading spirituality. He told the Registerthat dealing with AIDS was "a responsibility that God has given us to carry into the 21st century." And, in an observation that looks chilling in retrospect, the doctor told the Registerthat new drugs called protease inhibitors are "a glorious surprise."

When the Weeklyseries revealed that Kooshian may have been injecting water, saline solution and multivitamins into critically ill AIDS patients and depriving them of such drugs as protease inhibitors, Kooshian first denied it.

"I am truly upset, saddened and disturbed [by the allegations]," Kooshian told Moxley in July 2001. At the same time, Kooshian attorney Eric E. Davis added that Kooshian's critics "really don't have any evidence. . . . It looks to me like they are just trying to blackmail somebody out of money. I don't think [Kooshian] has done anything wrong."

The allegations seemed too much for the celebrated doctor's supporters. "At this point," one wrote to the Weekly,"I am more concerned about the writer's interests than any possible wrongdoing by the doctor!" Another concluded, "Moxley is not so much interested in presenting news as in the adrenalin kick he gets while poring over his list of expletives and verbs while producing fantastic paranoia that went out of style back in the '60s with the closure of the LAFreePress."

Except for metroG.com, a gay Orange County website, which republished Moxley's articles, the local press was almost silent. The LATimeswrote nothing. Two weeks after Moxley's first story, the Registerwrote its first and only article on the subject, which included a statement from Kooshian: "I think there are other motives behind this. I don't believe that we did anything I think is wrong."

From April 2002:
Gay magazine blasts
reporting that helped
indict its advertiser

It was a curiously worded denial, and one might have expected local reporters to jump on it. Instead, The Orange County & Long Beach Blade,the Laguna Beach-based monthly gay magazine in which Kooshian regularly advertised his medical practice, ran a July 2002 ad with Kooshian attacking the Weeklyas a paper "lacking in journalistic integrity and objectivity." He described himself as "a concerned and caring physician" who had been victimized by "unethical and inappropriate" reporting.


 

"You guys have a lot more flexibility and freedom than we do," said Bladepublisher Bill LaPointe, explaining his magazine's continuing support of Kooshian on the day the indictments came down. "I can't just go out and publish rumor and innuendo."

"Kooshian endangered the lives of his HIV/AIDS patients for several years while the local GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered] print media failed to report this important story," said Bill Brown, publisher of metroG.com. "If it weren't for the Weeklycovering the Kooshian story—while allowing metroG to use their coverage—many affected people would be unaware of a possible problem concerning their health and even their lives."

But Kooshian had real leverage with TheBlade;the magazine still carries prominent ads for his partnership, Valley View & Ocean View Internal Medicine. So at the moment when the gay community needed accurate information most, it's possible TheBladefound its hands tied: investigate a story of real import or bow to advertiser pressure. Months after Moxley's first stories ran in the Weekly,LaPointe wrote that TheBladewould have nothing to say about Kooshian until actual verdicts were rendered.

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