Those who know him were stunned when a jury convicted beloved doctor Albert Diaz on 16 charges involving fraud against a federal insurance program — and heartbroken when the 78-year-old doctor was carted off last week to prison.
Supporters plan to show up at a hearing Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in Gulfport, where lawyers for Diaz will argue that he should be released on bond until he is sentenced May 22. Attendees will be offered white ribbons to wear at the hearing, with the color symbolizing innocence.
Attorneys for Diaz ultimately hope to win the obstetrician and gynecologist a new trial. In a motion filed after the trial, they say the jury pool was tainted. One juror claimed a Diaz family member threatened her life, but did not relay the information for days to the judge or court.
Instead, the jurors talked about the threat among themselves from Tuesday until Friday morning, the last day of the trial. On Friday morning, the motion says, four jurors met the worried juror in the parking lot to make sure she got in the building safely.
She told them, “Well, I didn’t get car-bombed last night,” the motion said.
Only after the parking lot meet-up did Judge Keith Starrett learn about the situation and question each juror, releasing one of them. The motion does not say which juror was dismissed.
The motion, filed by Diaz attorney John Colette of Jackson, argues no jury could remain impartial after discussing for days a threat against a juror, ostensibly from a member of Diaz’s family.
“No degree of inquiry by the court could un-ring that bell,” the motion says.
Community rallies around Diaz
The motion also says community leaders will testify to Diaz’s character. He has demonstrated since his arrest in November 2017 that he has no intention of fleeing, his attorneys argue.
His long career in medicine and his reputation as a caring doctor mean Diaz has a great deal of support in the community, especially in Biloxi, where he has an office, and in his hometown of Ocean Springs.
Leah McMahan, a registered nurse anesthetist in the office of Diaz’s son, plastic surgeon Michael Diaz, has set up a Facebook page called Support Albert Diaz, MD. The page has 575 followers and counting.
His patients have shared stories on the page about the medical problems he has helped them through. “Tragedy” and “devastated” are two words used often on the page.
Diaz’s status was updated on the page after he had spent four nights in prison:
“As of yesterday he had not had a shower in three days, is sleeping on a cot with one thin blanket and no pillow, and had only been outside for 30 minutes since Friday night. Please take a moment to write him a letter. I believe he would like to hear the encouraging stories that have been shared on this page.”
Diaz delivered thousands of babies, said his friend Charles M. ‘Tod’ Holman Jr., a retired urologist. He was on his third generation of children with some families.
“During my professional career, Al was the kind of person who was conscientious to his patients,” Holman said. “He accepted patients whether they had the visible means to pay him or not. He cared for everybody in the same fashion.”
Diaz always enjoyed mentoring young people, including future doctors and neighborhood children who enjoyed riding the horses on his farm just outside Ocean Springs.
He was never arrogant, said several nurses who have worked with him. He treats them as equals and thanks them for their help.
“He’s very caring and compassionate,” said Ganda Greer, a registered nurse who has delivered babies with Diaz. “In his deliveries, he treats patients like he would treat his own family. And that’s exactly how he treated us.”
He often greets patients with a hug and a kiss on the forehead. And he remains calm under pressure. Nurse Lorie Whitehead remembers one female patient who came to the emergency room bleeding internally. There was a chance she would die.
Diaz calmed the patient and told her she was going to be fine. He operated on her and she did survive.
“When you’re going to sleep and you don’t know if you’re going to wake up,” Whitehead said, “you remember those kind words.”
Diaz insisted on his innocence
Those who know Diaz do not believe he intended to do anything wrong when he agreed to write prescriptions for compounded drugs that would go to veterans. They think he was manipulated.
He knew and trusted one of his co-defendants, Jay Schaar, Diaz’s drug representative for years. Schaar asked him to write the prescriptions, according to court records and testimony.
Witnesses, including Schaar, testified at Diaz’s trial that the doctor wrote some prescriptions without actually seeing the patients.
Schaar and Jason May, co-owner of Advantage Pharmacy in Hattiesburg, pleaded guilty in the TRICARE fraud case and cooperated with the government’s investigation.
Diaz’s supporters are outraged that Schaar and May are free while they await sentencing, despite the fact that they profited from the scheme to compound drugs based on expense and profit, not medical need.
Prosecutors calculated that May earned $396,351 from the scheme and cost TRICARE $192 million. The loss from Scharr’s fraud was $2.2 million, prosecutors said.
Diaz did not earn a dime, according to testimony at trial. He could have accepted a plea deal in the case, but refused, insisting on his innocence. He faces spending the rest of his life in prison.
Whitehead, who has known Diaz for more than 15 years, came up with the idea for the white ribbons. She will be handing them out at the courthouse Tuesday.
“I was just thinking we needed to do something to support him,” she said. “Everyone is just heartbroken. He’s 78 years old and he was still working. He dedicated his life to our medical community.”