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Family to be awarded $500,000 in VA case
Widow wins settlement in corrupt cancer study, but 6 others kept waiting
By BRENDAN J. LYONS, Senior writer
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First published: Tuesday, December 5, 2006
ALBANY -- The federal government agreed to pay $500,000 to settle the first of seven federal lawsuits brought by the widows of veterans who died in a corrupt cancer research program at Stratton VA Medical Center Hospital, the Times Union has learned.
The six other widows, who still have lawsuits pending against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, are finding the government less willing to admit their husbands were used as guinea pigs in the tainted drug studies.
The Justice Department has not agreed to settle the remaining cases, in part because it's never been determined -- or publicly disclosed -- that more than one veteran died as a result of the corruption. The government's position has been that the men had advanced stages of cancer, so it is impossible to determine what killed them, attorneys in the case said.
But in at least one case it was clear, and Justice Department lawyers recently settled with the family of that victim, James J. DiGeorgio, a 71-year-old Air Force veteran from Brunswick who died at Stratton in June 2001. The settlement comes a little more than a year after a former hospital researcher, Paul H. Kornak, was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for his role in the scandal.
VA officials and federal prosecutors have portrayed Kornak as an out-of-control researcher who forged medical records to push cancern-stricken patients into drug studies that allegedly paid the hospital thousands of dollars. But attorneys for the families and people familiar with the hospital's operation contend the corruption was widespread and Kornak was following orders from oncology doctors.
At his sentencing, Kornak said he was a scapegoat. His conviction exposed deep problems at the hospital, where he masqueraded as a doctor despite flunking out of medical school, and was hired despite a felony criminal conviction in Pennsylvania in 1992 for forging a medical license application.
The scandal triggered nationwide efforts by Congress to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs' hiring practices and embattled research programs. Many widows have dismissed the government's assertions that Kornak acted alone.
Attorneys for the widows recently obtained permission to depose Kornak at an Ohio prison, giving the public an opportunity to hear Kornak's story, contained in sealed files kept by the Justice Department, which has declined to prosecute anyone else.
An assistant U.S. attorney in Massachusetts declined comment on the settlement last week, saying it has not been publicly filed. The criminal investigation was handled by the U.S. attorney's office in Albany.
Mary Snavlin, DiGeorgio's daughter, said her family's settlement doesn't bring any closure.
"The families that are out there waiting for their due, they need to get that," she said. "The Justice Department, the VA, the doctors, the non-doctors, they need to own up for what they did to all of the veterans. They need to say 'OK, we did this,' and whether it's 5 cents or $2 million, they need to understand that families are still hurting over this. It will never go away."
In January, the DiGeorgio family filed a motion saying their case should be settled because there was no dispute that his death was caused by experimental drugs that he should never have been given. Settlement talks began the following month.
"We have several other family members of victims to deal with," said Alan C. Milstein, an attorney for plaintiffs in the case, including the DiGeorgio family. "The difference between DiGeorgio and the others is that Mr. DiGeorgio was the one victim the government used in the prosecution (of Kornak) to basically say it was akin to manslaughter."
Many of the remaining widows have said the litigation is not about money. They contend it's about getting answers to why their husbands were used as experiments and in making sure it doesn't happen again.
Milstein said the quandary in their cases is convincing the government that it is indefensible to argue the men would have died anyway because they all had advanced cancer. Kornak admitted forging their medical backgrounds so they could be enrolled in the drug studies, where they were given drugs that may have worsened their conditions and hastened their deaths.
"It's always been my position that when somebody is used and abused the way these people were, that's what I call damage to their human dignity," Milstein said.
Hospital officials have denied a widespread coverup and instead placed blame on Kornak, who pleaded guilty to federal charges of negligent homicide and falsifying medical records.
Kornak posed as a doctor at Stratton, including carrying the title "M.D." on his VA-issued business cards and being introduced to patients as "doctor" even though he never finished medical school. His supervisors knew about his lack of credentials.
In all, Kornak is accused of undermining at least four major research studies involving dozens of veterans and hundreds of thousands of dollars. The hospital earned thousands of dollars for each patient enrolled in the programs, in which pharmaceutical companies tested new drugs on cancer patients to obtain approval for them from the Food and Drug Administration.
Over the summer, attorneys for the plaintiffs obtained permission from a federal magistrate to depose Kornak at Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio.
At his sentencing in November 2005, Kornak apologized for his crimes but told a judge he was "used" by the hospital's former cancer research director, James A. Holland, who was fired along with Kornak shortly after the scandal broke about four years ago.
No one else, including Holland, has been charged in the case. Holland now works in a cancer research program at a Georgia hospital. A federal review of his research credentials is pending.
Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.