Carlson comes calling

by Brian Bakst

Gov. Arne Carlson’s insistence Wednesday that officials reimburse Dr. John Najarian for legal fees and reinstate the surgeon as a tenured professor was the latest in a string of demands the governor has presented to University officials.
In a letter to Board of Regents Chairman Thomas Reagan, Carlson urged the University to make amends with the famous doctor. “The University needs to bring closure to its differences with Dr. Najarian.”
Reading from a prepared statement Wednesday outside Morrill Hall, Reagan said he and University President Nils Hasselmo agree the ALG affair must be brought to a conclusion. But Reagan refuted Carlson’s request, calling reimbursement of Najarian’s legal bills “totally unwarranted.” He emphasized that four review panels found the former surgery chief’s actions as head of the University’s ALG program “grossly improper.”
Although Carlson has no direct decision-making authority over the University, the governor has tried several times to use his powerful position to influence University policy.
In April, for instance, he sent a letter to regents criticizing the University for creating what he claims will be a $300 million deficit by 2000. University officials refuted Carlson’s projection, saying it was based on the most expensive proposals of an administrative wish list.
And last December, the governor suggested he should play a role in choosing a successor to Hasselmo, who will retire after the 1996-97 school year. Although picking a University president is the province of the regents, Carlson urged the creation of a citizen committee that could contribute to the selection process by identifying long-range goals for the University.
Regents, who are meeting this week on the University campus, reacted to Carlson’s latest request with disbelief.
“We are coming here to talk about important issues of tenure and the University-Fairview merger,” said Regent H. Bryan Neel on Thursday between regent meetings. “(Carlson’s letter) seems inappropriate.”
Although not directly referring to Carlson’s letter, Regent Stanley Sahlstrom said in a meeting of the full board that the University and the regents need to remain autonomous.
Carlson’s appeal to the board came nearly five months after Najarian was acquitted of 15 charges stemming from a Food and Drug Administration investigation into his management of the ALG program. An anti-rejection drug used in organ transplants, ALG, was developed at the University and tested by Najarian for more than 20 years.
The criminal charges alleged that Najarian broke federal drug safety laws and embezzled money from the University by double-billing for travel expenses. Amidst the allegations of misconduct, Najarian resigned from his job as a professor of surgery.
Carlson said in his letter that it would be in the best interest of the University and the state to “reimburse Dr. Najarian for his defense costs, and reinstate him in an academic position.”
The gesture came as a surprise to Najarian, who said Wednesday night from his home that he learned about it from a local television station. Although he was pleased with the governor’s decision to support him, Najarian said he had no contact with Carlson regarding the issue.
His lawyer, Peter Thompson, has been pursuing a reinstatement and reimbursement agreement with University attorneys for several months, Najarian said. He said his legal fees are in excess of $1 million.
“It is disappointing that the University will take a hard line on this thing,” Najarian said.
Carlson also used the letter to criticize the way in which the University handled the ALG controversy. By failing to fund Najarian’s defense, administrators passed blame for the ALG controversy, which “underscores the belief of many people that central administration attempted to avoid its own responsibility by distancing itself from Dr. Najarian,” the governor wrote.
The acquittal in federal court should provide justification for the University to repay Najarian, Carlson added. He said a report issued by Hasselmo in 1993 stated the University would be willing to consider reimbursement after learning more about the case.
Reagan, however, said evaluations by the FDA and the National Institutes of Health concluded that Najarian should not be allowed to conduct research. “The fact that Dr. Najarian was acquitted in federal court has no bearing on whether he is fit to serve as a member of the medical school faculty,” Reagan said.
The University spent more than $7 million in conjunction with the ALG case, according to an administrative report issued in March. Much of the money was spent in an attempt to salvage and sell the ALG program. The University also paid more than $175,000 for Najarian’s legal fees before deciding the reimbursement did not qualify under regents’ policy.
Najarian, 69, continues to perform transplants at the Academic Health Center. But he said he feels betrayed by the University.
“I was not only defending myself against the federal government, but against the University for which I had worked for 29 years,” he said. “You would think that you would stand up for the people who work for you.”
Carlson said in March he hoped the Minnesota Legislature would not punish the University for the amount it spent on the case. But Wednesday’s letter raised the specter that the governor’s dismay with University officials could affect relations with the Legislature.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, whose Minneapolis district includes the University, wouldn’t predict the effect Carlson’s criticism will have when the Legislature reviews the University’s funding request next year. But the DFLer said she thinks that Carlson was “absolutely, totally out of line” in seeking legal fees and reinstatement for Najarian.
Mark Rotenberg, the University’s head attorney, called requests to repay Najarian “ironic” since Najarian admitted during the trial to double-billing the University for travel costs. Najarian’s attorneys said the double-billing was an honest mistake and that the surgeon did not charge the University for thousands of dollars in legitimate expenses.
— Staff reporter Gregg Aamot contributed to this report