No ruling on doc's competency in Vegas hep C case

A Nevada state psychiatrist testified Friday that despite two strokes, the embattled former physician-owner of Las Vegas outpatient clinics involved in a 2008 hepatitis outbreak is mentally competent to stand trial on criminal charges.

Dr. Steven Zuchowski, a psychiatrist who treated Dipak Desai at the Lakes Crossing state mental facility in Sparks, testified under questioning by Desai's lawyer that Desai's memory was affected by strokes in 2007 and 2008, but that he was still fit to stand trial, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported ( ).

“His current functioning is not of a severe, brain-damaged or demented individual,” Zuchowski said. “I do believe he has some cognitive deficits, but he is definitely exaggerating those deficits.”

Clark County District Judge Kathleen Delaney made no immediate decision on Desai's competency. She ordered prosecutors and defense attorney Richard Wright to submit written summaries of their arguments next week.

Wright spent Friday cross-examining Lakes Crossing physicians by videoconference about their observations while caring for and evaluating Desai for six months last year.

The doctors' conclusion that Desai, 62, is fit for trial reversed initial findings by physicians who examined Desai before former Clark County District Judge Jackie Glass sent him last March to the northern Nevada facility for treatment.

Wright argues that Desai is too incapacitated by the strokes and other ailments to help his defense on felony racketeering, fraud and patient neglect charges. But the lawyer lost a bid this week for a hearing before the Nevada Supreme Court on his request to postpone trial.

Prosecutors Michael Staudaher and Pam Weckerly contend that Desai is exaggerating his ailments to avoid facing a jury.

The once prominent gastroenterologist and member of the Nevada state Board of Medical Examiners sat impassively in court Friday. His wife, Dr. Kusum Desai, and one of their daughters sat behind him in the courtroom gallery.

Desai is accused of orchestrating a penny-pinching scheme at his clinics, the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada and Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center, which includes requirements that staff reuse vials of anesthesia, colonoscopy scopes and bite plates during outpatient procedures in 2007.

Southern Nevada Health District officials in February 2008 began notifying more than 50,000 Desai patients to be tested for hepatitis and HIV. Authorities later determined that nine people contracted incurable hepatitis C through the unsafe practices and cases involving another 105 patients might have been related.

The competency question is crucial to the criminal case against Desai. If he is deemed mentally unfit with no chance of recovery, state charges against him would be dismissed according to state law.

If Delaney rules Desai competent, trial is due to begin in March before another Clark County judge, Donald Mosley.

However, that schedule could change because Mosley is preparing to retire from the bench. Court spokeswoman Mary Ann Price said Friday that Mosley has not announced a departure date.

Desai and two former employees, nurse-anesthetists Keith Mathas and Ronald Lakeman, have pleaded not guilty to the felony charges against them. Each could face decades in prison.

Desai also faces federal conspiracy and fraud charges on a separate indictment handed up last April in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas. Wright pleaded not guilty on Desai's behalf and also argues there that Desai is not competent for trial.

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