LAS VEGAS — A once-prominent Las Vegas physician was found mentally competent Thursday to stand trial on allegations that he orchestrated a penny-pinching scheme at his southern Nevada clinics that left patients infected with incurable hepatitis C.
Clark County District Court Judge Kathleen Delaney cited two psychiatrists and a psychologist at a state mental facility in Sparks who found that Dipak Desai is "competent and obviously exaggerating his symptoms" from strokes in September 2007 and July 2008 to avoid trial. Desai received six months of treatment at the facility last year.
The judge's ruling ended more than a year of legal wrangling over the ability of the 62-year-old former gastroenterologist and Nevada state Board of Medical Examiners member to understand the charges against him and assist in his defense.
"The only impediment to competency asserted by the defendant is self-reported memory loss, secondary to two strokes, regarding facts relevant to his criminal charges," the judge said. "Memory loss itself, even if true, is not a bar to prosecution of an otherwise competent defendant."
Desai's lawyer, Richard Wright, contends that Desai is incapacitated by his strokes and other physical and mental ailments, but lost a bid to get the Nevada Supreme Court to postpone trial. He did not immediately respond to messages Thursday.
The ruling cleared the way for Desai and two former employees to face a jury before another Clark County judge, Donald Mosley.
Trial is currently set for March and is expected to take several weeks. That schedule could change because Mosley is preparing to retire from the bench.
Court spokeswoman Mary Ann Price said Thursday that Mosley hasn't announced a departure date.
Desai and nurse-anesthetists Keith Mathahs, 75, and Ronald Lakeman, 64, have pleaded not guilty to the felony charges against them, including racketeering, reckless disregard for and patient safety, insurance fraud, theft and obtaining money under false pretenses. Each remains free on bail pending trial.
The three men were accused in a 28-count indictment handed up in June 2010 of infecting at least seven patients with hepatitis C by reusing endoscopy scopes, bite plates and vials of injected anesthetic during outpatient procedures in 2007 at Desai's Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada and Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center.
Southern Nevada Health District officials began notifying more than 50,000 Desai patients in February 2008 to be tested for hepatitis and HIV. Authorities later determined that nine people contracted hepatitis C through the unsafe practices, and said cases involving another 105 patients might have been related.
The outbreak spawned dozens of civil lawsuits in Nevada by patients seeking damages for becoming infected with hepatitis C or for being put in fear that they had been infected.
Desai also faces federal conspiracy and fraud charges on a separate indictment handed up last April in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas. Wright pleaded not guilty on Desai's behalf and argued in federal court that Desai is not competent for trial.