Dr. K KOd

OC Weekly series leads to federal indictment of celebrated AIDS doctor

"The plain and simple truth is that [Kooshian] is a criminal," Lampel said before the settlement. "He has been engaged in crimes, and we intend to hold him responsible for his despicable conduct."

* * *

In the midst of the legal proceedings, Moxley revealed that Kooshian had quietly attempted the takeover of the county's HIV programs. In June 2002, Moxley unearthed county records that showed the doctor applied early that year to win an unpublicized $2.8 million annual contract to run the county's AIDS care facilities in Santa Ana and Laguna Beach. The two facilities served more than 1,200 patients.

Even there, Kooshian could not avoid notoriety.

In his article "Kooshian Coup?" Moxley reported the controversial doctor had inside help in his effort to win the contract.

The chairman of the county's powerful HIV Planning Council—which officially tells the county how to spend $6 million in federal AIDS grants each year—was Ron Viramontes. At the same time, Viramontes served as financial administrator for Kooshian's four medical offices. He was also Kooshian's lover. The two men shared Kooshian's massive Newport Coast estate as well as a taste for top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches, which filled their 1,000-square-foot garage.

Records showed Viramontes lobbied several times on Kooshian's behalf with TIPPS Consulting Services, the county's private consultant on the feasibility and impact of privatizing AIDS services. On March 28, 2002, for example, he sent to TIPPS's Scott Helberg a two-page letter describing Kooshian's interest. The letter espoused Kooshian's qualifications but failed to mention the doctor's criminal history or current legal woes.

"I represent the physicians and staff of Valley View Internal Medicine and Ocean View Internal Medicine and wish to express our interest in the possibility of being a contractor for the County of Orange to provide HIV primary and specialty care services to persons eligible to receive Ryan White [federal AIDS grants] for services in the County of Orange," Viramontes wrote. "We look forward to working with you and the county on developing an outsource model for the provision of primary and specialty HIV medical care."

One observer had a two-word explanation for Kooshian's peculiar insider access: "Ron Viramontes."

"It doesn't take a genius to figure out that something stinks here," said one HIV expert. "Most everything is being done behind-the-scenes with very little public disclosure or debate. It's like they don't want anyone to know what is going on."

By using his insider position to lobby for what would be a highly lucrative contract for his lover, Viramontes may have run afoul of his organization's ethics guidelines. According to the HIV Planning Council's policies, "as a rule, members should not involve themselves in any council action that could materially benefit them personally, their business interests, or the interests of organizations they represent."

The county's Health Care Agency (HCA) also has guidelines for contract proposals, one of which requires its officials to assess "the availability or willingness of potential bidders to provide services." But according to the agency's own documents, the search for HIV specialists apparently began and ended with Kooshian.

In June 2002, Moxley called Bonnie Birnbaum, HCA's manager of HIV Programs, to find out why Kooshian was the only HIV specialist contacted in advance. Birnbaum declined to take the call; her assistant, Chris Prevatt, also declined to answer any questions on the record.

Sources said potential conflicts of interest don't end there. In addition to his business and personal ties to Kooshian as well as his key role at the HIV council, Viramontes also may have aided Helberg win county consulting contracts.

County officials refused to provide the Weeklywith a copy of Helberg's deal. But this much was clear: Helberg had an interesting business background for someone in the public-policy consulting game. He was co-owner of the Las Vegas-based TIPPS Consulting and something called Open Door to the Soul. In addition to the county of Orange, his other clients included Soul Astrologer; AndThey'reOff,a horseracing tip sheet; and Witchstar.com's Lady Brenda, an online "High Priestess," founder of the Grove of the Green Cobra and author of TheWayoftheWitch.

Helberg's May 1 "Final Report" on the clinic deal was available online—but not through the county. The Weeklyfound it first through Helberg's OpenDoortotheSoul.com. Helberg refused to be interviewed and, within hours, blocked public access to his Orange County HIV study by adding a password protection. Ironically, he described his website as "a place where people come together in spiritual community to share information, ideas, philosophies and to find acceptance and tolerance."

Pat Markley, an HCA spokeswoman, could not explain why the document was available through OpenDoortotheSoul.com. She told Moxley the county had not released the two-month-old report because it is "still under review."

"It is my understanding that we are tweaking the document now," she said.

Despite the bizarre secrecy surrounding the critical public-policy issue, the link between Helberg and Kooshian's office was indisputable. The consultant gave special thanks in his report to Viramontes for his "key" assistance in developing the privatization plan. However, the report's appendices showed Kooshian received relatively low scores in a confidential survey of county HIV patients. In his conclusion, Helberg made a non-binding recommendation that favored UC Irvine over Kooshian.

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