Posted on Feb 24, 2008

If sophisticated sleaze were a felony, local spine surgeon John Thalgott might have testified Friday in U.S. District Court in a gaudy prison uniform instead of a neatly tailored suit.

But seeing as how the professional slime factor is an inherent part of the ongoing medical fraud trial of attorney Noel Gage, Thalgott's groomed appearance was the perfect touch. Where is Balzac when you need him to describe these paragons of virtue who are as treacherous as they are polished?

Thalgott is capable of admitting a lie without blinking an eye. He did just that under the nose of Senior U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush.

The studious Thalgott glibly acknowledged he threw colleagues under the bus in a medical malpractice case in order to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. Here is one of the upstanding men former Olympic volleyball player Melodie Simon entrusted with her back surgery care.

Here's a twist that casts even more doubt on the government's key witnesses.

Perhaps in an effort to appear less rapacious, sources say Thalgott through federal intermediaries last week offered Simon $1.5 million if she'd sign a document releasing him from further liability in the case. No word yet whether she accepted the offer. Made at such a late hour, the offer looks like blood money.

As for fellow ethically bankrupt physician Ben Venger, sources say he has agreed in principle to forfeit $3 million to the government in the case. Venger was granted immunity in 2005, and that makes this hurried move look like witness rehabilitation.

Will it work? It's hard to say.

Despite having his occasional lies and convenient memory lapses illuminated by defense attorney Tom Pitaro on Friday, overall I think Thalgott capably communicated to the jury the depth of shoddy behavior alleged by the prosecution.

In brief, Gage is accused of selling out his client by directing her malpractice case away from the deep pockets of physicians Thalgott and Mark Kabins to the expendable local anesthesiologist Dan Burkhead. According to the government's theory, following an off-the-record meeting "that never happened," fat medical malpractice cases were to flow Gage's way in exchange for protecting Thalgott and Kabins and sandbagging Simon.

The defense made a salient point when it argued Gage was wise to narrow his litigation in order to improve the long odds of his client prevailing, but it was clear from Thalgott's cross-examination that his confidant Kabins had a dirty hand in Simon's crippling. Her paralysis emanated from two areas of the spine, one of which was the site of Kabins' operation.

Instead of walking away, Simon is confined to a wheelchair and received just $1.3 million of her original share of a $2.3 million settlement after paying attorney fees and costs. Gage and self-styled medical consultant Howard Awand, the middleman in this sordid affair, scored big.

The fact trial lawyers make a bundle in medical malpractice cases isn't news. Nor is it a crime -- if Gage didn't sell out his client. But if the attorney wasn't candid with Simon, who entrusted her quality of life with him, then the prosecution might find the traction it needs to nail down a conviction.

That mystery meeting alone might not be enough to convince the jury of 69-year-old Gage's guilt, but even if he's acquitted he owes Simon a multimillion-dollar rebate.

The prosecution's problem is simple: Right now, Thalgott and Venger are the Sammy Gravanos of this case. Although using flawed witnesses is a reality in these cases, the physicians are the ones who took the Hippocratic oath. They lied, cheated, sold out their patients -- and received deals that will enable them to continue to practice medicine.

Although at present Awand is the only other player under indictment, the makeup of the courtroom gallery Friday makes me think other local doctors and lawyers are anticipating some bad news courtesy of the FBI and U.S. attorney. In one row sat attorneys Richard Wright, Charles Kelly, and Gary Logan. Nearby was lawyer John Spilotro. On the other side of the courtroom was the Monty Hall of this case, attorney George Kelesis, who represents the interests of Thalgott, Venger, lawyer Richard Harris, and others.

Who knows, maybe they came for the spectacle.

In a case with so much sophisticated sleaze, it's hard to look away.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at [email protected] or call (702) 383-0295.

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