Med-spa doctor sent to prison in COVID ‘cure’ smuggling attempt
Dr. Jennings Staley agreed to mislabel purported shipment of hydroxychloroquine from China as ‘yam extract’ to skirt scrutiny
Dr. Jennings Staley was particularly enamored with the promise of hydroxychloroquine, and its money-making power, in the early days of the pandemic.
The anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine had been touted by President Donald Trump, conservative outlets and some medical professionals as a possible antidote to COVID-19, and he wanted to be able to sell it to patients at his Skinny Beach Med Spa locations around Southern California.
But the controversial drug — a “miracle cure,” he told an undercover agent — wasn’t easy to come by.
Desperate to obtain it, the San Diego physician agreed with a Chinese supplier’s suggestion to mislabel a 26-pound shipment as “yam extract” to get around customs authorities.
On Friday, Staley, 47, was sentenced in San Diego federal court to one month in prison, followed by one year of home confinement, for the deceit.
U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel also ordered Staley to pay a $10,000 fine, plus $4,000 in restitution to the government — the cost of hydroxychloroquine concierge “treatment kits” sold to the undercover agent in April 2020.
The single month of custody is significantly lower than the one-year prison term that prosecutors had sought.
“This is ultimately a fair sentence for a very complex, multifaceted case,” defense attorney Patrick Griffin said in an interview after the hearing.
Staley, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq as a combat medic, is set to self-surrender to prison at the end of July.
He also agreed earlier this month to a voluntary temporary suspension of his medical license while he undergoes residential substance abuse treatment, after recent drug tests detected cocaine in his system multiple times while free on bond. The state Medical Board has indicated that it intends to pursue other sanctions against him, prosecutors said.
While Staley pleaded guilty in July to one felony charge related to the shipment — importation contrary to law — he admitted to making a broader range of fraudulent misrepresentations in his quest to sell hydroxychloroquine, according to his plea.
“Staley abused his trusted position as a physician in order to commit these crimes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Pilchak wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “Only his status as a doctor — and his own medical experience as a military physician — allowed him to hold himself out as a trustworthy voice during trying times.”
A San Diego doctor is accused of hailing hydroxychloroquine as a ‘miracle cure’ to an undercover FBI agent posing as a prospective patient
Staley’s attorney said the doctor got caught up in the wave of optimism over hydroxychloroquine, as did many other physicians at the time. The FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization to use the drug to treat COVID-19, but only under strict conditions using the national stockpile.
“In late March 2020, the use of these medications became politicized, and the underlying medical literature was drowned out by a media frenzy,” Griffin wrote in a separate sentencing memorandum. “Dr. Staley became caught up in this media frenzy and spent an inordinate amount of time consuming media reports about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine.”
Staley began marketing the drug, resulting in interactions with 45 patients. After 10News reported on the questionable marketing, the FBI launched an undercover investigation. The investigation showed that none of the patients reported being misled.
“A key fact in this case is that there are no actual victims. No real patient or customer believes they were defrauded,” the defense attorney wrote.
Staley’s sales pitch to an undercover agent was a different story.
In a nearly hour-long recorded phone call with an agent, Staley made various wild claims, touting hydroxychloroquine as an “amazing cure” that he’d bet his life on, according to government records. He dismissed doubt over the drug’s efficacy, blaming the rhetoric on political turmoil.
“It’s this magic bullet that was laying right there,” he told the agent. “This amazing weapon and, due to politics, thousands of people are gonna die because they argued over it.”
The $4,000, six-person kit the agent bought included hydroxychloroquine, as well concierge medical services and various prescription drugs, without collecting any medical information or personally examining the patient or his purported family members included in the package.
Staley also wrote a prescription for hydroxychloroquine for one of his employees who used the drug to treat lupus — an approved “off-label” use of the medication — and misrepresented that the medication was for her, according to his plea agreement.
“At the height of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, this doctor sought to profit from patients’ fears,” U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said in a statement. “He abused his position of trust and undermined the integrity of the entire medical profession.”
As for the “yam extract” shipment from China, Staley thought he could dodge U.S. Customs and Border Protection with the mislabel. But federal authorities were on to the ruse and intercepted the shipment once it arrived at a U.S. port. When they tested it, it was determined not to be $6,830 worth of hydroxychloroquine powder, but baking soda.
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