A federal jury acquitted a prominent Reno doctor on Thursday of charges he trafficked in a human growth hormone.
Dr. James Forsythe, 69, said the charges had robbed him of his practice and he was eager to return to his work.
His attorneys said that while he was the target of an undercover sting operation in 2004 he twice prescribed the drug to a Food and Drug Administration agent to treat a legitimate health condition.
“I’m ecstatic,” attorney Kevin Mirch said. “I’m glad we persuaded the jury that the doctor is innocent.”
Federal prosecutors argued that Forsythe – with a patient list that includes top casino executives and Nevada first lady Dawn Gibbons – sold the drugs illegally for anti-aging purposes, falsifying the diagnosis of a growth hormone deficiency to cover his tracks.
The 12-member jury deliberated for about two hours in U.S. District Court in Reno Wednesday afternoon and returned its verdict at midmorning on Thursday after hearing closing arguments and listening again to secret tape recordings the undercover agent made of Forsythe, who is married to former Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Earlene Forsythe.
Senior Judge Howard McKibben on Tuesday dismissed one of two counts the Justice Department brought against Forsythe, saying there was no evidence he introduced the drugs into interstate commerce from Israel without required approval.
The remaining charge accused him of distributing Bio-Tropin as an unapproved anti-aging treatment. If convicted, he would had faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Mirch said FDA agents launched the investigation based on the mistaken understanding the drug had not been approved by the federal agency.
Mirch said when they learned it was simply a new name for a previously approved growth hormone, prosecutors changed their strategy to argue that the drug could be prescribed for adults only in special circumstances, including treatment of hormone deficiency and AIDs wasting.
Mirch said the agency exerted “too much power” in a rush to indict Forsythe in 2005.
“He is a good man,” Mirch said. “He has lived since 2004 with absolutely the most horrible cloud over his head, his family’s head and his colleagues’ heads.
“They wanted to get him. They wanted to embarrass the people on this (patient) list and they did. They should have apologized and let this man who is 69 years old attend to his patients like he has for 40 years.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Keller said Forsythe didn’t do many of the tests experts said are necessary to determine whether someone suffers from a hormone deficiency.
“This case is not about whether the defendant is a good doctor or whether he practices good medicine,” Keller said.
“You are simply here to determine whether he followed the law and whether he distributed the drug for unauthorized purposes,” he said.
Keller brushed out of the courtroom on Thursday, ignoring a reporter’s request for comment.
On the tape recording, the undercover agent tells Forsythe a man he knows from the gym referred him to Forsythe. He said he had searched on the Internet and been reading about human growth hormones.
Forsythe responded, “So you’re mainly interested in HGH for energy purposes, getting back into shape?” He then told the agent they provide such treatment at his clinic.
Keller said the doctor made a reference to a book entitled “Feel Good with HGH” and handed out a pamphlet “Healthy Aging, Passport to a Better Life.”
“Doesn’t it show he’s doing it for anti-aging purposes?” Keller asked the jury. “He prescribed it for anti-aging, lack of energy – those things for which we want to make us feel younger.”
“There were no questions about the pituitary gland or trauma to the head,” Keller said, which experts testified can cause such a condition.
“Doesn’t that seem like a cover?” Keller asked. He also questioned why Forsythe didn’t write the agent a prescription to take to a pharmacy.
“Why distribute it out of his office? What’s being hidden here?” he said.
Mirch said the government used snippets of the tape out of context “to somehow state that Dr. Forsythe does not have the capacity to tell if someone has a growth hormone deficiency.”
“The government tried to tell you if Dr. Forsythe didn’t do what they consider proper tests, that is a crime. It is not,” he said. “He can prescribe it and give it to that patient if he believes that (diagnosis). It is an allowed use.”
Mirch said the defense team was able to determine that the agent once suffered a stroke, which he compared to head trauma, something the agent had kept from the FDA and Justice Department prosecutors.
“You don’t let an unqualified sick person make the decision to indict a doctor who has a sterling reputation for years and years and years,” he said.