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.

Federal sources say they know of no evidence to suggest that anyone at Mount Sinai or UM acted in collusion with Resnick. The evidence that supervision by both institutions was virtually nonexistent, however, is ample. Resnick's 1991 deposition in the Driskill suit is a case in point.

At one point he was asked, "Who is your supervisor at Mount Sinai right now?"

"I'm my supervisor," Resnick replied.
"Is there anybody that works or that you report to? Do you have a boss?"
"No."

Later in the deposition, Resnick discussed his billing practices. "Do you keep a logbook of how many hours you spent on this case?" he was asked.

"Not specifically."
"How do you bill CIGNA?"
"We extrapolate how much time we've kept on this case."
"How do you do that?"
"Based on the amount of time that I feel we've devoted."

Through their attorney, Joel Stocker, Mount Sinai officials refused to answer specific questions from New Times. Instead, Stocker released a blanket statement asserting that Mount Sinai "has acted diligently, appropriately, and swiftly in the matter involving Dr. Lionel Resnick" and is cooperating with all the investigating agencies.

Key UM personnel, including Dr. Margaret Fischl, initially agreed to interviews with New Times. Through the school's PR department, they later refused, citing the federal prosecutor's criminal investigation.

The university's supervision, though, appears to have been as lax as the hospital's. University officials told the Miami Herald they discovered the alleged fraud because two Vironc bills amounting to more than $50,000 were inadvertently stuck together, prompting a closer examination of the company. But the Mount Sinai audit indicates that Vironc has billed UM large sums of money A from $25,000 to $65,000 per bill A for the past four years without inspiring such scrutiny. The audit also reveals that in July 1991, a check for $25,500 intended for Vironc was sent to the wrong address. The error was eventually corrected and the check sent along to Resnick's home with no further question.

In fact, when UM accountants delved into their records, they discovered that Resnick had personally profited from work done at the Mount Sinai lab before Vironc even existed. Sharpstein confirms that Resnick deposited $30,000 to $40,000 in checks from UM into a personal account, even though the research in question was performed at the federally funded lab.

Dr. Margaret Fischl, one of the world's foremost AIDS scientists and the woman who assigned the work to Resnick, told the Herald she knew nothing about the details of his pay. Despite the fact that her name appears on the bills he sent, she said, it was the school's purchasing department that was responsible for checking into Resnick's lab before authorizing payment.

Fischl also told the Herald that several years ago she visited a Miami Beach lab Resnick led her to believe was Vironc. That lab, the Herald reported, was actually Stratogen Health, an AIDS treatment clinic Resnick helped found. Investigators are having trouble making sense of Fischl's account. State licensing records reveal that the lab at Stratogen, which opened in mid-1992, lacks the equipment needed to conduct research of the sort Fischl assigned to Resnick. Specifically, it is not licensed in virology. Investigators have also obtained a 1993 letter in which Resnick invited Fischl and her staff to a meeting at Stratogen and gave directions to the clinic. Given this exchange, they say it appears unlikely Fischl could have continued to mistake Stratogen for Vironc.

"I have to assume that Dr. Fischl was misquoted [in the Herald]," Richard Sharpstein says. "I can't imagine that she thought the work was being done anywhere other than Mount Sinai, because she was very familiar with the research."

Rather than indicating a conspiracy to commit malfeasance, the scandal seems to portray a system that is ripe for exploitation.

"When you get to the highest echelons of medical research, there's a lot of mingling of private and public money and nobody really keeping track," observes Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital Association, a nonprofit trade group that represents 35 hospitals in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. "If you're a famous researcher, you may be receiving money from grants, drug companies, and foundations, all for the same basic data. So there isn't the accountability people assume there is. Especially with AIDS, because so much of the research is confidential."

Quick says noted researchers are also likely to be given a long leash by administrators, specifically because they bring prestige to the hospital or university where they work.

"I'm sure that some administrative issues were overlooked in Lionel's case," Sharpstein asserts. "Not owing to some sinister motive, but because of his unique position."

That unique position, in all likelihood, is gone. The current controversy and its attendant publicity have branded Dr. Lionel Resnick with infamy, a dubious distinction he now shares with his father and older brother.

From 1986 to 1994, during his eight-year stint on the Miami Beach Commission, Abe Resnick often found himself facing questions about his ethics. About the substandard conditions of the apartment buildings he owned. About the fact that he rented out subsidized-housing units, a violation of federal housing regulations that forbid commissioners from doing so. About his willingness to accept campaign contributions from a suspected drug dealer. Most of all, about his relentless attempts to manipulate city policy to favor his economic interests as a millionaire landowner. (Resnick, a Holocaust survivor who fled to Cuba in 1947, then settled his family in Miami Beach in 1960, was the subject of a 1989 New Times cover story.)

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