Michael Omidi - Top Surgeons Case Revisited
Only a couple of years has passed since a number of Los Angeles news outlets had circulated highly sensationalistic stories covering an investigation into Lap-Band surgery specialists responsible for the remarkably successful 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign. This investigation, which primarily targeted Dr. Michael Omidi and his family, has attracted a widespread media attention largely due to the unprecedented seizure of funds. Remarkably, after several years of exhaustive inquiry, the investigation failed to yield tangible results worthy of the media fanfare, although it succeeded in inhibiting a popular weight-loss enterprise that successfully assisted numerous patients in prevailing over their lifelong battles with obesity.
While the media effectively sparked our curiosity about multiple search and seizure warrants issued by the government against the enterprise, it also left its coverage of the case unresolved. In a characteristic fashion, the prevailing news coverage relied on the conventional wisdom of "where there's smoke there's fire." Once it uncovered no signs of fire, however, the media seemed to promptly abandon the story leaving a number of questions unanswered. Did the investigation yield any criminal charges? What happened to the seized money? Is Michael Omidi still performing weight-loss procedures? Those readers hoping for a shocking discovery might be slightly disappointed upon hearing the answers. To cut the story short, no charges were filed against Dr. Omidi who continues to deliver highly sought-after services in facial, breast, and body surgery. What remains puzzling is the reasoning behind an indefinite seizure of the company's profits in the investigation that failed to yield any charges.
The story dates back to the period between 2009 and 2011 when five patients died after being treated at clinics affiliated with the enterprise that ran the 1-800-GET-THIN campaign. At the time, Dr. Omidi operated the company known as Top Surgeons together with his brother, Julian. It must be noted that neither Michael nor Julian Omidi performed procedures in question. That being said, the incidents sparked false-advertising lawsuits alleging that the company's ubiquitous ads failed to disclose risks associated with Lap-Band weight-loss surgery. As numerous healthcare practitioners and patients attest, however, the Lap-Band procedure constitutes a widely-accepted and effective obesity treatment. It involves placing an inflatable band around the top portion of the stomach, limiting its ability to expand and thus slowing consumption of food. As a specialist in non-invasive procedures, Dr. Omidi was naturally inclined to adopt the Lap-Band system that delivers impressive results without cutting of the intestines, amputation of any part of the stomach, or any other permanent alteration done to the patient's body.
In 2012 (??), Michael Omidi and his brother were presented with a legal complaint accusing them of soliciting patients for Lap-Band surgeries through their use of billboards, TV, radio, and print ads. The lengthy investigation that ensued failed to uncover any tangible evidence for either the alleged fraud or malpractice. What immediately grabbed the attention of reporters was a considerable sum of money seized by the investigators in 2014. According to a former federal prosecutor, Michael S. Weinstein, the seized trusts and accounts amounted to "one of the largest seizures in the country in the last year, if not the last couple of years." Strangely enough, the authorities reserved the right to keep these assets indefinitely without bringing a single fraud charge against Dr. Omidi and his family.
Paradoxically, in the absence of any formal charges, the sole fact of seizure was perceived by some as a sign of potential wrongdoing. Kathryn Trepinski, one of the plaintiffs who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Top Surgeons, stated: "The amount of money that was seized is stunning and it indicates the scope of this enterprise and its complexity." Most media outlets who reported on the seizure of Dr. Omidi's assets happily went along with this narrative without considering that the impressive profits were generated due to extreme popularity of Top Surgeons' services as opposed to some mysterious scheme supposedly concocted by the enterprise. Indeed, the true mystery consisted in the reasons used for this seizure since an affidavit filed by the prosecutors remained sealed by the judge. "There are certain constitutional protections people have against unreasonable search and seizure," argued Philip Hilder, a former federal prosecutor who marveled at the authorities' inability to specify the grounds under which the warrants for seizure were filed: "While they might have the right to file the seizure warrant, they just can't do it indefinitely without following up with a civil action or moving the seized items into the criminal case."
As it turned out, Michael Omidi and his team never came to face criminal charges. Multiple civil actions were eventually dropped save for a complaint regarding missing medical records that were mishandled by a document scanning company. In order to put an end to a prolonged litigation and regain seized assets, the Omidis decided to settle the complaint in 2015. At first, with the government refusing to release the company's funds, Top Surgeons found itself struggling to produce the amount of money required by the settlement. In the end, however, not only did the company reacquire its assets and successfully complete the settlement, but also recovered and submitted the misplaced records, thereby putting an end to allegations concerning removal of medical files.
In 2012, a number of news reports quoted Alex Robertson, an attorney representing plaintiffs who had submitted a legal complaint against Top Surgeons. "Ultimately, justice may be for these families that if laws have been broken, people responsible go to jail, that they get shut down, that doctors lose their license." After none of the above happened to doctors at Top Surgeons, the media quickly lost interest in the story and chose not to follow up on the admittedly anti-climactic resolution of the case. To this day, Michael Omidi remains one of the most highly sought-after plastic and reconstructive surgeons in the Los Angeles area. He proudly carries a double certification from the American Board of Surgery and the American Board of Plastic Surgery. It seems, after all, that there is such a thing as smoke without fire in the world of media coverage.