Doctored Evidence?
A lawsuit alleges an intriguing theory about how a pair of gloves and a gun ended up in a whistleblower physician's car

A bizarre case of road rage involving a soft-spoken doctor who exposed shoddy conditions at his own hospital just got even stranger. According to a lawsuit filed two weeks ago by the Orange County Physicians Investment Network (OCPIN)—a group of doctors and shareholders—against Integrated HealthCare Holdings Inc. (IHHI), the road-rage incident never happened. And, the lawsuit alleges, the only evidence that it did occur—a pair of black gloves and a gun that police found in the doctor's car—was planted there on the orders of IHHI's chief executive officer in retaliation for the doctor's efforts as a whistleblower.

As the Weekly first reported two years ago (see "Whistleblower Blues," July 6, 2006), Santa Ana police arrested Dr. Michael Fitzgibbons, an infectious-diseases specialist at Western Medical Center, on June 28 of that year, shortly after they found a weapon and gloves in his car. They acted on a tip from an anonymous caller using a pay phone who claimed Fitzgibbons brandished a handgun while driving near his office. Police found no evidence linking the gun or the gloves to Fitzgibbons—besides the fact they were stashed in his car, and both Fitzgibbons and another doctor produced cell-phone records showing they were talking to each other when the incident was supposed to have occurred.

The district attorney's office declined to press charges against Fitzgibbons, who claimed someone set him up.

Just a few weeks before the arrest, a judge had dismissed a lawsuit against him by IHHI, which owns Santa Ana's Western Medical Center and other Orange County hospitals, based on work e-mails Fitzgibbons wrote claiming the company was in dire financial straits.

The July 15 lawsuit against IHHI and its CEO, Bruce Mogel, alleges that Mogel embezzled money from the cash-starved hospital, threw lavish parties and lied about his history of lawsuits. But the most stunning allegation contained in the 30-page complaint concerns Fitzgibbons' mysterious arrest.

Specifically, the suit alleges that Mogel, angry at Fitzgibbons, sought to have him discredited by planting the evidence in his car. Several paragraphs in the complaint detail how Santa Ana cops responded to an anonymous 911 call about a man in a car waving a gun, found a vehicle at the hospital's nearby parking lot that matched the description, and received permission from Fitzgibbons to search the car, resulting in the discovery of the gun and gloves.

Meanwhile, according to the lawsuit, "Mogel was in IHHI's corporate headquarters, which is located next to the parking lot." While the police handcuffed Fitzgibbons, "Mogel calmly walked into a second-story office of IHHI's building that overlooks the hospital parking lot to watch the events. Mogel was not at all surprised or alarmed by the arrest of Dr. Fitzgibbons, but instead pensively watched over the commotion, as if to admire his work. As Dr. Fitzgibbons was being handcuffed and placed into the police car, Mogel boldly stated, 'People don't know how powerful I am.'"

On July 10, 2006, the complaint continues, "Mogel demanded that IHHI's president, Larry B. Anderson . . . draft a contract between IHHI and a purported 'web development company' named Form Labs Inc. The price of the contract was to be $10,000. This request was suspicious because IHHI had already engaged the services of another web development company. Mogel took the contract that Mr. Anderson prepared and signed for him and made arrangements for Form Labs to be paid $10,000."

However, the complaint states, Form Labs did not do any web work for IHHI. "Based on information and belief, it is alleged that Mogel used $10,000 of IHHI's funds to arrange and pay for the black gloves and gun to be planted in Dr. Fitzgibbons' vehicle, leading to his arrest."

Anderson did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story. Dan Callahan, a Newport Beach attorney with Callahan & Blaine, would not name the source who allegedly overheard Mogel make the ominous remark while Fitzgibbons was being arrested. "There is an individual who told us personally he was there and this is what Bruce Mogel said verbatim," he says.

Through the public-relations firm he hired, Mogel released a brief statement to the Weekly denying any wrongdoing. "I want everyone to know the allegations in this lawsuit are outrageous and untrue," he said. "However, legal prudence dictates that I not discuss the case in the press because of the litigation. The truth will come out."

David Robinson, a lawyer representing IHHI, says the company's legal-affairs committee is investigating the lawsuit's claims. "I don't know when the results of their investigation will be complete, but I know they are turning over every rock and they are doing a thorough and detailed job," he said.

Callahan adds that his law firm tried without success to contact Form Labs to verify the company's existence. "Our opinion [of Form Labs] is it's a front," he says.

Form Labs' website includes no list of clients; when the "portfolio" link is clicked, the website directs you to a message explaining their work is unavailable online because of the "ever increasing" risk of "theft of intellectual property." The only contact information for the company is the following e-mail address: admin@formlabs.com. An e-mail from the Weekly to Form Labs elicited a prompt response from someone identified only as "Administration."

In a subsequent e-mail, "Administration" refused to provide a telephone number where he or she could be contacted. (The website's domain name is anonymously registered to someone with a Newport Beach fax machine and post-office box.) The city of Newport Beach has no record of having issued a business license to the company, nor does the county have any record of it obtaining a fictitious-name license. There is no record of Form Labs registering as a corporation in the state of California, and a spokeswoman with the state Franchise Tax Board stated that no such company has paid any state taxes.

For his (or her) part, "Administration" stated that there is no corporate footprint for the company in California because it isn't based here. "Administration" did not respond to an e-mail asking where the company is based. According to the Arizona secretary of state's website, Form Labs is registered in that state, with its headquarters in Scottsdale. Though he works in Santa Ana, Mogel also lives in Scottsdale and commutes to IHHI's Irvine headquarters, according to published reports and sources close to the company.

In any case, "Administration" insists Form Labs is real and was indeed paid $10,000 by IHHI for consulting at about the same time police arrested Fitzgibbons. "We were hired for consulting only," he (or she) wrote. "By the direction of our attorneys, it is advised that we minimize contact by withholding names and telephone conversations until the matter is investigated further or resolved. We apologize for not being more accommodating, but [we] rely on our attorneys' advice."

Fitzgibbons isn't a party to OCPIN's lawsuit, but he filed his own lawsuit against IHHI earlier this month, alleging the company helped to frame him. He also wants prosecutors to file criminal charges against whoever placed the gun in his car.

"The attack on me was scurrilous, shocking and criminal," he says. "I went to the Santa Ana police, the Irvine police, the California Highway Patrol, the attorney general, the [Orange County] district attorney, and the FBI, telling them that I had been framed. And no one listened. I hope that now someone will listen. And I'd like to see somebody else in handcuffs over this."

A version of this story appeared on July 17 on our Navel Gazing blog.

nschou@ocweekly.com

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