Family to be awarded $500,000 in VA
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
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
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
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
Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547
or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org