John Najarian, M.D., a surgeon who pioneered dramatic advances in organ transplantation, was found innocent last week on all charges in his federal fraud trial in St. Paul, Minn.
Jurors took 10 hours to acquit the former head of the University of Minnesota surgery department on 15 counts accusing him of embezzling from and defrauding the university, evading taxes and obstructing justice.
U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle described the prosecution's case as "the equivalent of piling on."
"I have some questions as to why we were here at all," Kyle said.
Kyle already had thrown out six other counts accusing Najarian of illegally selling an experimental transplant drug while concealing serious side effects and deaths. The judge said prosecutors failed to present enough evidence to sustain the charges.
U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug said the judge appeared to favor Najarian with comments and rulings from the bench.
The surgeon said he was choking back tears as the verdict was read.
"Trying to save people's lives was what I was all about," he said. "It hurts."
In closing arguments, the defense portrayed Najarian as a caring surgeon with so many responsibilities that he kept sloppy financial records, knowing that his expenses and reimbursements evened out over time.
The prosecution argued that Najarian believed he was above the law, and urged the jury not to let their admiration for Najarian keep them from holding him accountable for financial misdeeds.
Jury forewoman Marjorie Gleason said Najarian's personality and fame didn't affect the decision.
"The prosecution did not prove its case," she said. "That's all I can say."
Najarian, 68, was accused of embezzling $75,000 from the university by double-billing for travel expenses, failing to report about $120,000 in income on his tax forms, hiding or destroying travel records and pocketing payments intended for the university.
Prosecutors argued that Najarian repeatedly lied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about the anti-rejection drug ALG, which was produced at the university for 20 years without ever being formally approved by the FDA.
It was ALG that Najarian's supporters say was a key to his success in transplant surgery. The FDA shut down the ALG program in 1992.
Najarian defended the ALG program and said he was a scapegoat for the university's problems.
"We ran a program," he said. "Sure we didn't cross every `t' and dot every `i'.*.*.*.*We found something that worked. It saved lives."
Najarian said he had some bitterness toward a university administration that failed to support him after all he had contributed.
"They decided I was the guy they were going to point the finger at," he said. "I had to take the fall."
Najarian resigned as head of the university's surgery department in February 1993 and from the university two years later. He continues to treat patients through his private practice.
Much of Najarian's national fame came from his youngest patients. In 1970, he sewed a new kidney into the youngest transplant patient ever, a 6-week-old boy whose veins were so tiny Najarian needed a magnifying glass to do the operation. And he was hailed as a hero in 1982 when he saved the life of 11-month-old Jamie Fiske with a daring liver transplant.
Born to a working-class Armenian family, Najarian rose to the company of the famous and mighty. Hubert Humphrey chose Najarian as his doctor before his 1978 death from cancer.