Critical Condition

AIDS researcher of high repute. Proprietor of a glamorous Miami Beach spa. Target of a federal criminal probe. The many sides of Dr. Lionel Resnick.

In each case, payments were not sent to Mount Sinai or to Resnick. Instead they went to Vironc Labs, Inc. As attorney Richard Sharpstein explains it, Vironc is not a lab at all, but a private company Resnick set up in 1989 to administer his private work.

UM officials say they first grew suspicious this past April, when a bookkeeper noticed that Vironc's address was the same as Resnick's northeast Dade home. Before that time, university staffers had always assumed that the work they farmed out to Resnick was performed at the Vironc lab. After he learned that no such lab existed, Bernard J. Fogel, dean of the UM School of Medicine, called Mount Sinai president and CEO Fred Hirt to report the financial irregularity. Fearing Resnick had used the Mount Sinai lab for private business, Hirt sealed off the area and ordered the internal audit.

Early in the morning of September 22, the day the audit was scheduled to begin, Lionel Resnick and a female assistant entered the lab, broke open his computer, and jammed a screwdriver into its hard drive. They also hid several logbooks containing scientific data. With the help of computer specialists, the data was later recovered, but Mount Sinai officials were irate.

Sharpstein characterizes the break-in as a "reaction to a very stern and inappropriate action taken by the hospital against one of their noted doctors. They came in like a bunch of storm troopers and shut off his lab without giving him any idea what they wanted." The attorney maintains that Resnick's intent was not to conceal data but to protect patient identities. (Mount Sinai officials say the recovered records included no names.)

Within weeks of the ransacking, Resnick resigned as chief of the lab and as an adjunct professor at UM. He agreed to cooperate with investigators, eventually consented to reimburse Mount Sinai A which in turn will reimburse its public funding sources A for his private use of the lab, and placed $500,000 in escrow. But no one knows the exact amount owed. Resnick's attorneys put the figure at $250,000; Mount Sinai officials claim it is at least double that. Federal auditors are attempting to pinpoint the figure by reconstructing exactly what work was done in the lab.

In determining Resnick's restitution, Sharpstein maintains, his client should be credited for helping to raise $250,000 in donations for Mount Sinai through a nonprofit foundation. Sharpstein says a portion of that money was used to fund the hospital's virology lab and "should be mitigated against what they say he owes."

More interesting than the financial minutiae has been the public relations campaign waged by all sides. A scandal of this magnitude could ruin reputations and jeopardize public funding. Officials from the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are investigating the case along with federal prosecutors. HHS oversees the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency that provides the lion's share of AIDS research monies.

With professional futures and millions of dollars at stake, officials from both Mount Sinai and UM have scrambled to portray themselves as blameless victims. Privately, staffers from both entities have stressed their status as whistle blowers and blamed the other for not minding the store.

Despite protests from Dr. Margaret Fischl, who ordered and approved Resnick's work and who insists his science was sound, UM has launched an investigation into possible scientific misconduct that will eventually be forwarded to the NIH for review. UM spokesman Chris Dudley downplays the inquiry, calling it "a matter of course."

According to sources familiar with the case, however, the investigators who reviewed Resnick's records found discrepancies between the raw data entered in logbooks and the figures later entered into the computer.

"Those differences mean nothing," says Alan Kluger, Resnick's civil attorney. "As lead investigator, the doctor has the responsibility to check his data. On some of the tests, he simply disagreed with the paraprofessionals who did the original work and made a change."

More generally, criminal defense attorney Sharpstein says his client never intended to defraud anyone. "Lionel simply believed the Mount Sinai lab was his. He had built the thing with his blood, sweat, and tears. He ran it, and he generated the business. Everyone knew what he was doing there. It wasn't as if he was hiding in a dungeon. What everyone's overlooking in this frenzy to accuse is that all the work Lionel did was in the service of finding a cure for AIDS. His contributions, on that level, go beyond dollars and cents."

And if Resnick did something wrong, Sharpstein concludes, he should not shoulder the blame alone. "If all these officials were so concerned about Lionel's lab, they should have set up a more defined understanding between all the parties as to financial arrangements. I'll tell you this, everyone benefited from his work, and no one more so than Sinai and UM."

Which has not escaped the attention of federal investigators. Though their probe is just getting under way, the feds are already struggling to understand how Resnick could bill so much money to his home address, for so long, without anyone noticing. "We're looking at all the parties involved here, Fischl and Sinai included," says one investigator, who requested anonymity. "The obvious question is: 'Did Resnick have any help?'"

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