Critical Condition

The scene was, as Mike Wallace would later recall, "most bizarre." The legendary newsman had come to Miami Beach this past June to work on a 60 Minutes segment about David Acer, the Jensen Beach dentist widely believed to have infected six of his patients with HIV before he died in 1990. Suspecting that Acer might have been falsely accused, Wallace was in town to interview Dr. Lionel Resnick, a prominent AIDS researcher who shared this controversial opinion.

After the interview, filmed in Resnick's office off Arthur Godfrey Road, the doctor had a request. Would Wallace say hello to his family? Sure, Wallace said, and the pair descended to the ground floor, cameramen bustling after them, and re-entered the building through another door.

In a tiny, ornately appointed room, Wallace was confronted by a dozen onlookers, all gawking expectantly. Some sipped cocktails from plastic cups, others gnawed at carrot sticks. Several, Wallace noticed, were holding cameras.

An elderly gentleman who shared the AIDS doctor's drooping nose and high forehead immediately pressed close to Wallace and introduced himself as Abe, Lionel's father. The former Miami Beach commissioner spoke of his experiences in World War II, and urged Wallace to visit the nearby Holocaust Memorial he had helped create. Next came Lionel's wife Fern, a petite blonde. Behind her, the guests with drinks milled awkwardly, while those with cameras began timidly snapping photos.

"The whole thing seemed off the wall," Wallace recalls, chuckling at the memory. "Here was this man I had just interviewed in his capacity as a leading AIDS expert, and he was dragging me to the opening of some sort of beauty salon his family had opened. I didn't get it."

Understandably. What Wallace had actually wandered into was a cocktail reception in his honor, a party thrown by Lionel Resnick's publicist in order to lure other journalists to Imagen, the upscale spa the doctor had launched six months earlier. The 60 Minutes star, in other words, had been used as bait.

Had he been aware of this bit of manipulation, Wallace, like the other reporters in attendance, might have been given pause to ponder this fellow, Lionel Resnick. But that is not what happened at all. Instead, Wallace beat a hasty retreat. A few days later, the 60 Minutes piece aired, with Resnick starring as the scientist brave enough to challenge the hasty conclusions drawn about David Acer. "What we see in the field of HIV is that sometimes if you run too fast, you could trip," Resnick warned.

The report spurred a buzz of protest in the AIDS research community (see accompanying sidebar). But in South Florida, Resnick's featured role afforded the 40-year-old doctor the status of local hero. Especially in his hometown of Miami Beach, where the appearance gave a welcome salutary boost to the Resnick family name A a name that had been sullied over the years by repeated allegations of unethical behavior on the part of Lionel's brother Jimmy and millionaire father Abe. This Resnick, it seemed clear, was a man of wisdom and unimpeachable morality.

And like a shred of toilet paper stuck to a movie star's shoe, the bizarre cocktail party was quickly forgotten.

That is, until Lionel Resnick tripped.
The misstep: Resnick, chief of the Retrovirology Research Laboratory at Mount Sinai Medical Center since 1985, had used the publicly funded facility to perform private work for which he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. No sooner had that fact come to light than he further aroused suspicion by sneaking into his own lab and attempting to destroy his records before auditors could inspect them.

The imbroglio has led to a flurry of finger-pointing and has cast a pall of doubt over the University of Miami's renowned AIDS research program, which during the past several years has paid Resnick to conduct much of its scientific testing. Three weeks ago, federal prosecutors in Miami opened a criminal investigation and the FBI assigned an agent to the case. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees the licensing of physicians, is also looking into the matter. Sources close to the federal probe say a grand jury will likely be convened within several weeks to determine whether Resnick should be indicted for fraud. Investigators are also trying to determine what role was played by other Mount Sinai officials and by Dr. Margaret Fischl, UM's leading AIDS researcher.

Resnick has resigned from the staff of Mount Sinai and given up his adjunct status at UM. The university has initiated a scientific-misconduct investigation, concerned that dubious billing may mean dubious science.

Through his two attorneys, Resnick admits that he erred but maintains that the entire affair is a misunderstanding, that he is being made the scapegoat by two image-conscious institutions. "When the dust clears, investigators will not find a shred of evidence pointing toward any criminal conduct," declares Richard Sharpstein, a prominent criminal defense attorney. Sharpstein also points out that his client has agreed to make restitution and is cooperating with all investigating agencies.

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Steven Almond