#Assyrian music survives despite wars and threats


I’ve written many stories about the local Assyrian American community’s struggle for recognition. When I wrote about a concert of Assyrian folk music only in February, it seemed as if Assyrians would finally have some formal representation on their homeland. Today, only five months later, their rightful lands, the Nineveh plains have gone to Islamic extremists, and frankly, no one cares or listens. The largest paper in Southern California, the LA Times, has rarely bothered to write about us (I wrote about Assyrians there as an intern in 1996). What people don’t realize is that when a terrorist group eliminates a people, that terrorist group won’t stop unless they are held accountable. It will hunt down all they deem different. By the time our (Assyrian) plight is recognized, most of the Middle East will be in the hands of extemists. Women will have no rights. And I’ll be here to say: I told you so. In the meantime, for what it’s worth, here’s a story about how Assyrian folk music has managed to survive (Daily News, Feb. 26, 2014). The concert was organized by the Assyrian Aid Society.

Their songs were born in Mesopotamia, where villagers sang of the mystery behind a woman’s deep gaze, their love for their vast, verdant land between two rivers and the mountain ranges that stretch toward the sun.

Now, thousands of years after those folk songs were created, some of the same melodies that survived time, wars and assimilation will be heard Saturday in Glendale as part of a fundraising concert and dance performance held by the Assyrian Aid Society of America.

“This folk music is still very strong in our culture,” but has not been widely heard in the Western world, said Sargoun Issa, president of the Assyrian Aid Society’s Los Angeles Chapter.

Since 1991, the nonprofit, along with its national and international counterparts, has worked to rebuild homes, fund schools and provide medical needs to Assyrians in Iraq affected by the two Gulf wars. But Saturday’s event also is a fundraiser to provide humanitarian aid to the Assyrian refugees who have been caught in the middle of Syria’s civil war.

An estimated half-million Assyrians fled to Syria in 2003 during the second Gulf War because of a surge of Islamic extremist attacks against them and other Christian minorities.

Now, Syria’s current civil war has forced many of those same families to return to the borders of Iraq. But their plight has been largely ignored and they remain an invisible minority. Assyrians are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, presently Iraq, where the last and largest concentration of Aramaic-speaking people in the world have lived for thousands of years. Because many Assyrians call Iraq and Iran their homeland, they have been confused with Arabs and Persians.

Some relief may come in the near future. Last month, the Iraqi Council of Ministers approved a plan to establish three new provinces in Iraq, one of them the Nineveh Plains, which holds the largest population of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs. The legislation may make way for Assyrians to form a self-administered region.

Still, even after a mass exodus from their homeland and even within the diaspora, Assyrian music has managed to survive.

During a rehearsal for Saturday’s performance, musicians warmed up on a zornah, or wind pipe, and a dowlah, a drum. Mehdi Bagheri, who is from Iran, practiced on a kamacheh, a small, cello-like instrument.

Singer Sargon Youkhana said his songs celebrate the beauty of everyday life, a theme all people, no matter who or where they come from, can relate to.


“Music doesn’t have an ID,” Youkhana said. “It’s for everyone.”

Singer Helen Saint Vincent said her goal is to expose more people to traditional folk music before it is forgotten.

“I want to rebuild this forgotten music,” Vincent said. “We (Assyrians) are an old nation, but we are scattered, and we have no land. We shouldn’t forget our music because this is part of world history.”

Saturday’s performance is one of two arts events sponsored by the Assyrian Aid Society. An exhibit featuring works by several artists from Iraq, Iran, and Syria will open Friday in Montrose and run through Sunday.

Artist and poet Paul Batou said the themes presented in the work transcend differences in religion and ancestry.

“Artists from those countries are sending a message of peace using the colorful art that explores the culture and beauty of their homeland,” Batou said. “These artists believe that peace, art and education are the keys for change, a change needed for beauty to overcome hate, love to overcome war and destruction.”

Issa said the goal behind these events is to raise awareness of the Assyrian culture through the arts, so they are not lost.

“This heritage doesn’t just belong to Assyrians, but to all humans,” Issa said. “When we lose a part of a nation’s culture, all human beings lose a part of human heritage.”

Help for sex trafficked victims often lacking


Once, when I was visiting Children of the Night almost 10 years ago, I saw a 13-year-old come in with breast implants. She looked around the center, then walked onto the back patio where she saw a pet rabbit. She asked if she could hold it. As she cradled the bunny with one arm, she put her thumb in her mouth and rocked the rabbit back and forth. It was difficult to believe that someone had been pimping this child just a few days before.  Sad and tragic what humans do to young women. Below is my most recent story about how politicians all want to help sex trafficked victims, but provide no funding on how to rehabilitate these teens and adults in the long term (From the series Prostitution in Los Angeles:  Daily News, May 20, 2014):

The children come through the doors with blackened eyes and broken teeth.

Some are branded; gang members tattoo their marks on a girl’s jawbone to show she’s their property. Once, a 13-year-old was brought in with breast implants. Her pimp’s idea.

Lois Lee has seen all kinds of youth walk into Children of the Night, the organization she founded 35 years ago, first as a drop-in center in Hollywood, then as a 24-bed residential shelter in Van Nuys for prostitution’s youngest victims. It is one of only a handful of its kind in the nation.

 In the early days, law enforcement wasn’t prepared to deal properly with the youngest teens who were selling their bodies for money, Lee said. No one wanted to admit that adults were paying to have sex with 14-year-olds.

But in the last two years especially, the attitude toward children sold for sex has changed. The word “prostitute” has been replaced with the phrase “sex traffic survivor.” Awareness has grown through billboard campaigns, marches down Los Angeles streets and government-backed task forces. And state legislators have introduced more bills that would penalize pimps with longer jail sentences and higher fines. But while Lee praises the increased awareness, the posters of doe-eyed children and proclamations to end sex trafficking still don’t translate into the kind of complex help and funding many youth and adults who have sex for money need.

“People only want to help the little children,” Lee said. “They don’t want to help my kids. My kids are teenagers who put earrings in places they don’t belong. Their favorite word starts with the letter F.”


Especially lacking are the number of residential facilities that provide specialized long-term care and rehabilitation. Those services include helping teens and young adults obtain high school diplomas, therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and life skills that can help them live on their own. Of the 10 state and federal legislative bills proposed this year to combat sex trafficking, for example, only one directly addresses the need for government funding for long-term and residential services.

Lee runs Children of the Night through private funding. Children who come to the program are referred by police from across the nation.

There are relatively few other facilities around the country that provide similar services — and the numbers are hard to track, researchers say, because programs open and close, while others may offer help for sex-trafficked victims as just one of many services.

One study, in 2008 by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, found only four residential treatment centers in the United States for sex trafficked children with a total of 45 beds, including Children of the Night.

 Another one, last year by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, found 33 residential programs nationwide with 682 beds that worked exclusively with trafficking victims. California had the most with nine residential programs offering 371 beds for victims.

“We need more services and shelters for juvenile and adult victims,” said Donna Hughes, a leading international researcher on human trafficking and professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Rhode Island. “We don’t have nearly the support for victims of trafficking that exist for victims of domestic violence.”

She said while there are experts who know how to work with victims of sex trafficking, their specialized knowledge may not be widely accessed among service providers. She too has noted the change in attitude for victims of “sex trafficking,” but not victims of “prostitution.” The terminology makes a big difference on funding.

“If people see the issue as one of prostitution, then they don’t want to give support for services,” she said. “Sex trafficking is called ‘modern-day slavery’ and the traffickers are seen as brutal criminals. Change those words to ‘prostitution and pimps’ and people assume that everyone involved is consenting to the activity. Prostitution and sex trafficking have different definitions, but in practice, they are often the same thing.”

Nearly 150 youth were arrested last year for prostitution in Los Angeles County and of those, 94 were from the Compton and Long Beach areas, county officials said. About 89 percent of those arrested were known to the foster care system.

“All counties currently lack capacity to provide enhanced supervision and support to protect victims through the regular foster care programs,” according to a February report by the County Welfare Directors Association of California to the state Senate Budget Committee. “Victims have immediate needs for clothing and safe shelter away from the abusive pimps and require long term services.”

The association says at least $20 million in state funding is need to establish an adequate infrastructure in California to raise awareness, increase prevention and provide long-term care. An additional $14 million annually would be needed to maintain such a program.

Long term residential homes continue to be a big issue for Los Angeles County, agreed Nick Ippolito, the children and social services deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. Along with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Knabe has worked to raise awareness about the issue of sex trafficking across the county.

“I don’t want anybody to think we’re just putting up posters,” Ippolito said. “We are actively working to put those services in place.”

Armenian Genocide, nearly a century later


It has been 99 years since the Armenian Genocide began in full force, and while progress has been made to acknowledge the events, neither the United States nor Turkey want to talk about the killings and death marches. No matter. Evidence continues to show the suffering endured among Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks from 1915 to 1923. This week, the  Armenian Film Foundation gave J. Michael Hagopian’s collection of 400 interviews of Armenian Genocide survivors and witnesses to the USC Shoah Foundation. It is a powerful collection which includes an interview with Armin Wegner, a German soldier who photographed the horrors of the genocide and who later protested the crimes of the Turks. Above, a photo I took of a mural in Little Armenia in East Hollywood. Below, a photograph by Wegner of an Armenian woman carrying her child toward the desert and filmmaker Hagopian, who I had the honor of interviewing years before. Here is my story about the collection at USC (Daily News, March 21, 2012):

The question would forever link one crime against humanity to another.

“Our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy,” Adolf Hitler said in his 1939 speech to justify his proposed invasion of Poland.

“Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

More than 70 years after Hitler asked that question, the voices of Armenians who survived the Genocide that began in 1915 will join the testimonies of those who survived the Holocaust of World War II, as part of a collaboration between the Shoah Foundation Institute and the USC Institute of Armenian Studies Leadership Council.

“These testimonies exist because (the survivors) wanted the world to know that this happened,” said Stephen Smith, executive director for the Shoah Foundation Institute, at the University of Southern California.

The voices and images not only strengthen evidence that such atrocities occurred, but also will show how crimes against humanity are born out of bigotry, prejudice, and intolerance if gone unnoticed, Smith said.

Founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994, the Shoah Foundation Institute includes more than 52,000 digitized testimonies of the survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust. It took more than 15 years not only to record the accounts, but also to index them properly so that scholars, journalists and those serious about learning could find specific stories by name, birth place or experience.

The foundation is now conducting a similar project with more than 400 films made by J. Michael Hagopian. He was a small child when his mother hid him in a well from Turkish soldiers who raided the village of Kharberd in what was then Western Armenia, now part of Turkey.


He survived and migrated to the United States and became a filmmaker who recorded the experience of Genocide survivors and witnesses.

Filmmaker Carla Garapedian, who worked with Hagopian and is leading the Armenian Film Foundation’s effort to digitize the work, called the availability of the accounts significant.

“This is the first time that Armenian Genocide interviews will be made available on such a wide network, so that universities around the world will be able to access them,” she said. “This is an important moment in terms of educating the public, from the point of view of survivors and witnesses. … In understanding genocide in that comparative way, we may be able to prevent it.”

An estimated 1.5 million Armenians died from 1915-23 in what has been called the first genocide of the 20th century.

The Turkish government maintains the deaths were a consequence of betrayal and civil unrest in what was then the Ottoman Empire.

Armenians, however, say the killings involved the systematic cleansing of Christians, which included Assyrians and Pontic Greeks.

But the word genocide has become politicized, with both the United States and Turkish governments refusing to call it such. Armenian-American activists have said the U.S. government won’t officially recognize the killings as genocide because it would hurt relations with Turkey, a NATO ally.

In an interview with the Daily News in 2010, months before his death, Hagopian said the accounts he filmed should be enough proof of what occurred.

“The evidence against Turkey is enormous,” Hagopian said. “The Germans have admitted what had happened (during the Holocaust). The Turks have to admit it so that there is remorse, and after that atonement and then forgiveness.

“They can’t kill babies and take wives and not face retribution.”


Samples of survivor and witness testimonies include recollections of babies pulled from their mother’s arms by Turkish soldiers then thrown into the air, and caught by a bayonet at the end of a rifle. There are memories of bloodied bodies floating down a river, and the systematic torture of intellectuals.

What makes Hagopian’s films that much more connected to the testimonies to the Holocaust is that he was encouraged to record survivors’ accounts by Armin Wegner – a German soldier. Wegner was an Army medic who was stationed in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. While there, he took hundreds of photographs documenting what was happening to the Armenians, which eventually resulted in his arrest. But he was able to sneak the photographs out.

Hagopian’s first film that related to the genocide was an interview with Wegner.

Both of their contributions, as well as the Shoah Foundation, will be honored at a gala and fundraiser on April 15 by the USC Institute of Armenian Studies’ Leadership Council. Funds raised will go toward the continued work of digitizing Hagopian’s footage.

“Wegner is very much a real symbol for what we’re doing,” Smith said. “Wegner was Hitler’s (symbolic) nemesis. He was there and photographed the Armenian Genocide. While Hitler is saying who now remembers the Armenians, Wegner says he remembers the Armenians.”

The digitalization process, which includes indexing key words in Hagopian’s films, should be completed in about two years, said Jerry Papazian, an advisory board member with the USC Institute of Armenian Studies Leadership Council.

“This (project) so defines who we are, this horrible thing that happened to our ancestors,” Papazian said. “Our theme has been `Don’t let their voices be forgotten’.”

The Shoah Foundation Institute also is working to archive witness accounts of the massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia.

The goal is to make people aware of what can happen if the world closes its eyes and turns its back.

“I’m delighted that the Armenian community trusts us with their personal community legacy,” Smith said. “Trust is the first step. When you don’t trust, that’s the breeding ground for bigotry, prejudice, and intolerance.”


Alzheimer’s affects an unexpected population


One of the joys here at the L.A. Daily News is working alongside three women who are from Tierra del Sol, an organization that encourages adults with developmental disabilities to learn various skills and contribute to the community.  Marcella, Linda, and Laney, photographed above with Los Angeles News Group Publisher Ron Hasse, have worked at the Daily News for nearly 20 years, and they are a gift. Their smiles, laughter and kindness remind me of the importance of being content with the moment, as they often are. In chatting with them one day, I learned that they and others with developmental issues are aging and some are even in retirement. The fact that they are living longer shows how much medicines and education have helped prolong their lives, but it also means many are experiencing dementia, a side effect of a longer life in many of them. Below is part of  story I wrote about how programs for the aging men and women with developmental disabilities are few and far between (Daily News, 2012): 

NORTH HILLS – She had learned to care for herself, to work and count her money so she could buy food, set the table, tell time and use a phone to dial 911.

Now 60 years old, Denise Steinberg is forgetting the little things. She puts her blouse on backwards or her pants on inside out. Her attention span has dwindled. She is acting out toward her roommates.

“I’m seeing the signs more and more, and I’m freaking out because where is she going to go?” asks Terri Budow, Denise’s younger sister.

“I love her and I want her to be around people who care and who love her, too.”

Steinberg was born with a developmental disability at time when she and people like her expected to live only until they were 30 years old.

Now, she is part of an unexpected trend: Those with Down syndrome or other development disabilities are living longer, but in some cases, not necessarily better. More than 90 percent of those with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s disease by the time they are in their late 40s.

“This is something the community has never had to deal with before,” said Roschell Ashley, director for residential services for New Horizons.

The nonprofit New Horizons formed in the San Fernando Valley in 1954 to help those with developmental disabilities learn life skills, find employment and receive housing.

But a new need has emerged.

As their clients age, New Horizons saw that its group homes were not adequate for elder clients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Of the nearly 700 clients the agency serves, more than half are 40 years or older.

So in 2008, the agency began plans for a six-bedroom group home just for those with Down syndrome who develop Alzheimer’s, one of only a handful in California and nationwide.

The nonprofit bought a plot of land in Reseda and the $1.2 million home is expected to be completed in the fall of 2013.

“These clients become totally dependent and need special care,” Ashley said. “The home will be equipped with everything, even lifts.”

But the increasing need will no doubt outgrow that home, she said.

The number of people who seek assistance through the California Department of Developmental Services increased by 60 percent from 1997 to 2007.

“What is going to be a challenge in this subgroup population is they will have nowhere to go, because their caregivers are aging, and their siblings are not around,” said Dr. Sikander Kajani, who specializes in geriatrics and is with Northridge Hospital Medical Center.


Am I crazy, or….

flu image

…should the story below about how hospitals in California held back using medication on flu patients have been on the front page? When I pitched this story a few times, I felt like no one listened to me. It was published on page 4. I had to move on to other stories, but it still bothers me (Daily News, Feb. 24,  2013):

Among dozens of patients who died of influenza in California this season, many were denied antiviral medications within the first 48 hours after being admitted to a hospital, according to a federal report.

The national report released Thursday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “in most cases, antiviral treatment was not given as soon as recommended.”

The data was provided to the CDC by the California Department of Public Health.

Of the first 80 deaths reported in California, 74 had underlying medical conditions known to increase the risk of severe influenza. But of 47 who were hospitalized and later died, only 8 — or 17 percent — received antiviral treatment within the recommended time of 48 hours.

“Empiric antiviral treatment should be promptly initiated when influenza virus infection is suspected in hospitalized patients, despite negative results from rapid diagnostic tests,” according to the CDC report.

The report came a day before the state’s Department of Public Health released new totals in deaths due to influenza. So far, 278 people have died of flu in California compared to 106 for all of last year. Those deaths do not include those 65 and older, so a true picture is unknown. Most cases are due to the H1N1 strain, the same one that killed 203,000 worldwide in 2009.

 Dr. Gil Chavez, an epidemiologist with the state public-health department, said via email Thursday that there were various reasons why a patient may not receive treatment on time, including access to medical care, timing of doctors’ visits, delayed recognition of an influenza-like illness and late identification of an influenza virus infection.

But he emphasized that caregivers should not wait for the results of tests to confirm flu is present before beginning medication.

“Hospitalized patients suspected to have influenza should be started on antiviral therapy as soon as possible, and treatment should not await confirmatory testing,” Chavez said.

The CDC report also found that flu vaccination rates were low.

Meanwhile, state officials said Friday that they are also concerned about the spread of measles. There are 15 confirmed cases of measles so far this year, compared with two last year. State officials said it was believed measles had been eliminated in 2000.

“Unfortunately, we are off to a very bad start in 2014,” Chavez said. Cases have occurred throughout California in six counties, including five in Los Angeles and three in Riverside.

Three of the 15 who were infected had traveled to the Philippines, and two traveled to India. Both are countries where measles continues to be a public-health concern. Five cases remain under investigation, and seven individuals had not been vaccinated under the personal-beliefs exemption. All were 5 months to 40 years of age, Chavez said.

In California, about 92 percent of all children have had measles vaccines by age 3. Less than 3 percent have gone unvaccinated due to parents choosing the personal-belief option, according to the public health department.

105-year-old Lakers fan to Kobe Bryant: take off your sunglasses so I can see you better


As 2013 comes to an end,  I think about some of those who I wrote about who passed away. I first met Allene Wynn in 2012, when she was about to turn 105 years old.  I sat with her in her living room with photographer David Crane and her enthusiasm for life and the Los Angeles Lakers not only struck me, but also readers.  Her passion for the Lakers and my story garnered Wynn unexpected national attention. For her 105th birthday, Wynn was invited to a Lakers game and came face-to-face with Kobe Bryant. She reportedly told Bryant: “You guys haven’t been playing well enough to suit me.” She then told him to take of his sunglasses “so I can see you better.” Wynn passed away on Aug. 12, 2013.    From my story (Daily News,  March 20, 2013):

PACOIMA – As her 105th birthday approaches, Allene Wynn admits that time has nibbled away at some of the details of her life.

She struggles to remember bits and pieces of her childhood in Arkansas. She raised 10 children, but it’s difficult for her to recall how many grandkids she has. She has some recollections of working in a nursing home in Panorama City, but she can’t quite pinpoint the year she first came out to California.

Yet there are some things she knows as clear as day:

That a little bit of sugar on green beans or on oatmeal hasn’t ruined her health so far.

That she wants to live as long as the good Lord will allow.

And that if she met Kobe Bryant in person, she’d tell him straight out that he’s been playing a mighty weak game these days.

“I’d ask him why he ain’t playin’ no better,” said Wynn with a hearty laugh. “The Lakers are making me mad. If I was able, I bet I could win.”

Wynn has been watching the Lakers ever since Wilt, Magic, and Kareem dribbled and dunked their way to greatness at the Los Angeles Forum. She can rattle off facts about each player with an almanac-like precision.

She’s such a Lakers fan, that when she receives her newspaper each morning at the Pledgerville Senior Citizen Villa where she lives, she flips through the sports section, cuts out the photographs of Kobe, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher (until his recent trade) and others, and tapes them up to a wall of her apartment.

“Miss Wynn does not miss a game,” said Claudette Jones, the manager at Pledgerville. “Whenever the Lakers are on, don’t bother her. If they’ve lost, she’ll tell you exactly why.”

Born on March 27, 1907 in Nashville, Arkansas, Wynn is not only the oldest resident at Pledgerville, but she was one of its first residents when it opened in Pacoima in the mid-1980s.


A birthday celebration in her honor, as well as for all other residents born this month will be held on March 30.

“She’s a very caring person,” Jones said. “She loves to cook, and she’ll call when she wants to share.”

When people ask Wynn what has been the biggest change she’s witnessed in her life, she’ll say it’s a lack of love among people.

“People don’t have a natural affection for each other anymore,” Jones said Wynn tells people. “That is one of the things she has observed.”

Leroy Geter, the CEO of Pledgerville and president of the board of directors, said that while Wynn has likely witnessed many social and historical events, she’s more likely to offer a witty perspective, telling people she has spent half her life minding her own business, and the other half not getting in the business of others.

“She’s got a sense of humor, and I’ve grown to love her and value her as a member of the Pledgerville community,” Geter said.

On a wall opposite the one with all the Lakers clips, hang several awards Wynn has received for her community service.

“Those awards are a testament to her love and commitment to the community,” Geter said. “I wish young people could sit at her feet, and ask her to tell them some of those stories they could benefit from in terms of longevity and how to treat your fellow man.”

But a few months ago, Geter, Jones, and others said they worried about Wynn’s emotional health after her daughter, Dorothy, passed away. Dorothy Wynn, known as Dot, was Wynn’s oldest daughter, and a frequent visitor and volunteer at Pledgerville.

“She was a great person just like her mother,” Geter said. “She loved her mother, and her mother loved her.”

But Geter said Wynn’s zest for life, her love of the color red, her recipes, her Lakers, and her sense of humor have all been her saving grace.

“Don’t tell Miss Wynn she isn’t a Lakers fan and expect to live,” Geter said.

Wynn said she’s felt like she’s had a happy life.

Along with her awards hang dozens of photographs of herself with her sons and daughters and grandchildren, and even the kids of families she once cared for.

“I have grandchildren and more grandchildren,” she said. “I think there are some I haven’t even met yet.”

When she turned 100, Wynn said she didn’t feel any different than when she was in her 90s. Aside from a little trouble walking, Wynn only takes one pill a day for her high blood pressure.

She has no secret to living a long life, she said, except that she eats what she wants, likes to play Bingo and the scratchers, enjoys casinos and dining at Hometown Buffet.

She also loves to cook, especially peach cobbler and pound cake. She guards those recipes with her life, those who know her say.

“She eats all the wrong things,” said her caregiver, Anna Jean Robinson.

“Her favorite thing to eat is something sweet,” Robinson said. “She’ll put sugar on everything.”


“Well, if it ain’t done me no harm and I’m still here, I can still eat it,” Wynn responded.

And as for reaching 105, well, that’s just a number, Wynn said.

“I don’t care how old I am `cuz I’m not ready to die,” Wynn said. “I love life. I want to live as long as I can. I want to live as long as the Lord will let me stay here.”

And she’d like to meet Kobe and the Lakers for her birthday, not just to give them a good tongue lashing for the way they’ve been playing lately, but also to thank them for some exciting games.

“Kobe has too much on his mind,” she said. “He ain’t playin’ right, but you can’t blame him for everything.”


California docs earn millions from Big Pharma


One of my favorite assignments this year was working with ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism. The reporters there not only produce their own award winning stories, but they also provide reporters from other media outlets with a searchable database. It’s up to us to plug in names and locations to find trends. I looked through hundreds of names throughout Los Angeles County to find the doctors who were being paid top dollar by pharmaceutical companies to attend lectures. The discovery led to a question only one doctor would answer: is there a conflict of interest? From my story (Daily News, March 10, 2013–the online version is unedited. The portion below is the edited version that ran in the paper).

Drug money runs deep in the Golden State.

It comes from the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and leads to a mental health clinic in Granada Hills, an anesthesiologist’s office in Santa Monica, and to a cardiologist with practices in Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach.

In fact, hundreds of physicians, psychiatrists, and medical school faculty members across California are on the payroll of major drug companies, earning tens of thousands of dollars for speaking to other medical professionals at events held by industry leaders that make drugs such as Advair, Cymbalta, Viagra and Zoloft.

From 2009 to 2012, California doctors who participated were paid $242million – the most in the nation – by major drug companies for research, speaking, consulting, trips and meals, according to a new database released Monday by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization.

The disclosures have been listed on the websites of some drug companies for several years, but a federal mandate will require it for companies by 2014.

Analysts from ProPublica gathered names of physicians, the amount they were paid, and the services they rendered – data listed on websites of 15 of the largest pharmaceutical companies, which make up 47 percent of U.S. drug sales.

The data show that speaking about diseases for a drug company has become a lucrative moonlighting gig for those in the medical profession locally and across the nation.
But while the practice of speaking is not illegal, it raises the question of conflict of interest: Is the drug being given to you because you need it, or because the doctor writing out the prescription is paid by Big Pharma?

The database also shows that about half of the top earners are from a single specialty: psychiatry, according to findings by ProPublica.

“It boggles my mind,” Dr. James H. Scully Jr., chief executive of the American Psychiatric Association, told a reporter from ProPublica, referring to the big money paid to some psychiatrists for what are billed as educational talks.

Paid speaking “is perfectly legal, and if people want to work for drug companies, this is America,” said Scully, whose specialty has often been criticized for its over-reliance on medications. “But everybody needs to be clear – this is marketing.”

Dr. Arthur Chanzel Jeng, an infection-control specialist at UCLA-Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar who was paid $80,500 last year by Pfizer for speaking engagements, defended the practice, saying the lectures serve an educational purpose.

“Pharmaceutical companies used to take doctors to dinner, but that was banned years ago,” Jeng said in an interview with the Los Angeles News Group.

“Now they must provide some educational content.”

He and others in his field are concerned about drug-resistant diseases and the limited number of antibiotics. Drug companies have little incentive to produce new antibiotics, he said, so if they do, physicians in his field want to know more about the drugs. That’s why he agrees to speak.

“We (speakers) provide education when a new antibiotic does get released,” he said. “There needs to be education among doctors on how to use this new antibiotic.”
Jeng said Pfizer is never mentioned by name at the events. Internal monitors attend the engagements to make sure, because of past litigation against the company. He also said he does not feel pressured to administer medications solely made by Pfizer.

“A lot of the lectures are in university settings. It’s part of our job description,” he said. “We don’t take samples.”