When people are in difficult circumstances, they find strength they didn't know they had.
Oct. 13--A federal judge Friday sentenced Mark Weinberger to seven years in prison for insurance fraud, marking a new low point in the Chicago sinus surgeon's spectacular rise and fall.
Judge Philip Simon noted the peculiar arc of Weinberger's life as the 49-year-old rocked anxiously in his seat in the Hammond courtroom. In 2004, Weinberger was an Ivy League-educated doctor running a solo practice in northwest Indiana that raked in more than $30 million in less than three years.
But as federal investigators began looking into his clinic and the first of what would become more than 350 former patients who filed lawsuits claiming Weinberger performed unnecessary surgeries, Weinberger disappeared from his 80-foot yacht off the coast of Greece. He remained a fugitive for five years until he was discovered living in a tent at the base of the Italian Alps.
"(Patients) go to the doctor believing he has their best interests at heart and instead find the doctor is using the patients as, essentially, an ATM," Simon said.
The 84-month sentence was nearly double the federal guidelines for the 22 counts for which Weinberger was charged. With credit for good behavior and alcohol rehabilitation, Weinberger could spend about as much time behind bars as he did in hiding in Europe. Weinberger asked to spend the duration of his sentence -- he has been in prison since he was arrested 2009 -- at a minimum-security prison in Florida, near where his father lives.
His father and brother and a few patients and staff were the only ones to write letters supporting Weinberger.
His father also had filed a claim against Weinberger's bankrupt clinic, trying to recover $1 million he had lent his son to set up the clinic. The claim was denied.
"I'm sorry. I lied. I stole. I betrayed a sacred trust. I have no excuse. There is no excuse," said Weinberger, the words coming out haltingly. "I let so many people down. ... My behavior was bizarre. It was outrageous. It was stupid."
Weinberger's face was furrowed with concern throughout the hearing as he rocked in his seat and fidgeted.
His expression only lightened as his court-appointed attorney, Visvaldis Kupsis, talked about how Weinberger had attempted suicide twice shortly after his capture, but he had gone on to create yoga and nonviolence programs while behind bars at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Weinberger's plea agreement with prosecutors capped his possible sentence at 10 years.
William Boyer, a Gary man who was one of the first to sue Weinberger for malpractice, was the only former patient to address the court, testifying in a raspy voice that his vocal cords had been damaged during surgery performed at Weinberger's clinic. He won a $300,000 jury award, which has been appealed. And Weinberger's refusal so far to cooperate with his malpractice insurer has meant Boyer may not ever collect.
"Eighty-four months? I'll take it," Boyer said outside the courtroom. "I haven't seen a cent yet."
(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune
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