Crist backer Gary Kompothecras bullies Florida health officials
"This madness has got to stop. No more double talk. This should be a fairly straightforward study. I feel that there are hidden agendas going on and I will not stand by [and] let it continue!! I will not wait any longer," reads an email dated August 6 from Dr. Gary Kompothecras to Dr. Julia Gill, director of the Florida Department of Health's (DOH) Division of Disease Control.
Coming from anyone else, the blustery email threat might be easily dismissed. But "Dr. Gary," as Kompothecras is known, is the self-styled "Rainmaker," a Sarasota chiropractor who has raised more than $1 million over the years for Senate candidate and soon-to-be ex-governor Charlie Crist.
So it's bound to turn heads when the man known to occasionally lend his private jet to the governor uses his political clout to try to bully Florida health officials into turning over scores of the state's sealed immunization records. Especially when they're for a father-son team, Dr. Mark and David Geier, infamous for injecting autistic children with Lupron, a drug used to chemically castrate prostate cancer patients and pedophiles.
"I will be speaking to the governor's office next week," Kompothecras, who has served on the Governor's Task Force on Autism Spectrum Disorders since 2008, wrote in his email. "I will even fly up to Tallahassee to sit down with the governors' chief of staff and explain in detail the railroad we have been on." Then he signed off with a demand and a threat: "I want a clear, precise time line now!! Govern yourselves accordingly."
Kompothecras — founder of the lawyer referral service 1-800-ASK-GARY and a leading light in the "anti-vax" movement, which promotes the long-discredited theory that vaccines cause autism — copied Crist's chief of staff, Shane Strum; the DOH's chief of staff, Robert Siedlecki; and other DOH officials on the email.
A well-placed source within Florida government, who asked to remain anonymous, claims the governor's office has been putting "political pressure" on the DOH to submit to the Geiers' demands. Turning over the sealed immunization records, the source says, would be "reckless, careless, shortsighted, and politically motivated."
Instead, senior DOH officials — "at-will" employees who can be fired without a stated cause — hope to stall the Geiers' study until a new administration arrives in Tallahassee, the source says: "The issue is too politicized. No one wants to approve their study, but no one wants to be fired either."
Dr. Mark Geier and his son David, 37, are leading proponents of the idea that tiny amounts of ethylmercury in the vaccine preservative Thimerosal cause autism. The elder Geier — a 62-year-old Marylander who worked as a researcher for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the '70s — published several well-regarded papers before enduring a painful, protracted falling-out with mainstream science in the '80s and '90s.
Since Mark Geier embraced the autism theory, his appearances in federal courts have led judges to label his testimonies "intellectually dishonest" and "not reliable." The Institute of Medicine has called his work "uninterpretable." The American Academy of Pediatrics said one of his studies exhibited "numerous conceptual and scientific flaws, omissions of fact, inaccuracies, and misstatements."
Nevertheless, the Geiers persist in their belief and insist that allegedly autism-causing heavy metals can be eliminated from the body with the help of Lupron combined with rigorous chelation therapy. (Chelators, which occasionally cause heart failure in patients, are chemicals designed to sift metals from nonmetals, and the mainstream medical establishment routinely derides their use in treating autism as dangerous pseudoscience.) The cost of the Geiers' Lupron regimen can exceed $60,000 per year.
Lupron has been used to treat prostate cancer in adults, but its only indicated use for children is in treating the early onset of puberty. Even doses much smaller than those administered by the Geiers have occasionally rendered young patients sterile.
According to Dr. David Gorski, founding fellow of the Institute for Science in Medicine and an NIH-funded cancer researcher, the Geiers' Lupron treatment is "in essence, chemical castration in order to treat autism based on no reliable science." Says Gorski: "The concept that [the Geiers] embraced isn't even bad science. It's just not science."
Research Autism, a British charity, states on its website: "Used on children or adolescents, [Lupron] could cause disastrous and irreversible damage to sexual functioning... There is no scientifically valid or reliable research to show that [Lupron] is effective in reducing any of the problem behaviors associated with autism." The drug is also known to thin bones and disrupt heart function, and it might cause diabetes.
In 2004, shortly before they began experimenting with Lupron, the Geiers were conducting research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when on-staff technical monitors caught them manipulating data and performing analyses that put patients' confidentiality at risk. The study was terminated.
Like their proposed Florida study, the research involved sifting through immunization records in the hopes of finding links between vaccines and autism. But unlike the CDC files, the data the Geiers seek for their Florida study contains patients' addresses and social security numbers.
In spring 2009, Dr. Kompothecras — who has two autistic children — invited the Geiers to address a meeting of the Governor's Task Force on Autism Spectrum Disorders, whose members also include Palm Beach County Commissioner Robert Kanjian and ex-quarterback Dan Marino. According to an application obtained by New Times, the Geiers first sought access to Florida's immunization records six months later, in fall 2009.
Since then, the Geiers have done little but wait while the DOH bureaucracy has presented them with obstacle after obstacle.
This past April 16, according to our source, Kompothecras visited the governor's mansion to complain about the DOH to David Foy, then Crist's director of policy. Later that afternoon, Foy convened an impromptu meeting among himself, Kompothecras, Kanjian, and the DOH's Siedlecki, Gill, and Dr. Shairi Turner. Tensions ran high. Reportedly, Gill and Turner struggled to remain respectful while Kompothecras berated them. (Kompothecras, the source says, was the "driver" of the meetings.)
This behavior is odd, almost singularly so, considering that access to Florida's confidential medical records is a privilege, not a right, for any researcher. Those seeking access to such records generally approach the DOH as supplicants seeking a favor.
Nevertheless, on August 6 — the day Kompothecras penned his angry letter to Gill and her associates at the DOH — the Geiers were issuing demands. "The present situation is completely unacceptable," they wrote to the DOH. "This project has been lingering for over a year. It seems from the actions taken by officials from the State of Florida that every single possible delay tactic has been employed to prevent the present study from going forward."
Neither the Geiers nor the governor's press office would comment for this story, though Kompothecras's spokesperson and longtime associate, Rich Swier, is eager to defend his friend. Kompothecras "is a father of two autistic children," he explains. "He is very passionate about this cause."
Yet he insists Kompothecras neither would nor could wield undue influence in Tallahassee. "It just so happens that he's friends with Charlie [Crist] — that's well known... Whether he's out there helping him politically, that's completely independent of [his position on] the task force. Dr. Gary wakes up every morning with this energy, this desire to help."
But Kompothecras has all but bragged of his ability, via generous giving, to enlist politicians in the anti-vaccine fight. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported last year that he donated more than $15,000 to state Rep. Kevin Ambler and state Sen. Mike Bennett; both have backed legislation that would weaken Florida's mandatory vaccine regimen.
Kompothecras told the paper that his personal lawyer had helped Bennett write an anti-vaccine bill. When he sent the irate email to DOH, the doctor copied Bennett. Whether Kompothecras's political friends can enforce his will at the DOH is unclear. What is clear is that the DOH is afraid they might.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.