A Florida doctor and a medical consultant pleaded guilty this week to federal charges arising from a scheme to pressure hundreds of women to get their pelvic mesh implants removed. The effort was intended to increase the value of personal injury claims against the manufacturers of the medical devices.
The guilty pleas — by Dr. Christopher Walker on Friday and Wesley Blake Barber on Tuesday — bring to a close a criminal case brought two years ago by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn. The two men pleaded guilty to violations of the federal Travel Act, a law that prosecutors have used to pursue charges of bribery in the health care profession.
Mr. Barber, 51, could face at least four years in federal prison when he is sentenced in December by Judge Raymond J Dearie of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Dr. Walker, also 51, who pleaded guilty to two counts, could be sentenced to at least eight years when he appears before the judge in January. Lawyers for both men are expected to ask for lesser sentences under the federal guidelines.
The scheme was one of the more unsavory sides of the mass tort case against a half-dozen manufacturers of pelvic mesh including Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson. The case has led to more than $8 billion in settlements for roughly 100,000 women in the United States. Dozens of personal injury firms also collected billions in fees in the process.
Prosecutors charged the two men in 2019 with participating in a network to get women from across the country who had pending personal injury claims against the device manufacturers to agree to hastily arranged surgical procedures to remove the implants. The pitch was that women who had the implants removed were getting bigger settlements than women who still had the implants inside them.
However, removing the implants, a synthetic product that can bond with a woman’s internal organs, can be tricky. Some women who had mesh removed were worse off, or no better, than they were before the operation. Many of the women lured by the network had the procedures done without getting a second opinion.
Mr. Barber was one of the architects of the scheme, according to prosecutors, and a firm he worked with helped arrange for the surgical procedures to be performed at outpatient medical centers in Florida — some in nondescript strip malls. The procedures were paid for with money from high-interest cash advances arranged by a group of so-called litigation finance firms. But the women had to pay the money back to those lenders after receiving the settlement proceeds.
The charging document filed by prosecutors in 2019 said the women had been unaware that Dr. Walker and others who had performed the implant removal surgery had paid kickbacks and bribes to Mr. Barber’s firm and others for the surgical referrals.
Brooklyn prosecutors filed the charges after an article in 2018 in The New York Times about how some women said they felt pressured into getting the mesh removed by a network of consultants, personal injury lawsuit marketers, lawyers and doctors. Most of the women said they did not fully understand what they had agreed to.
The use of mesh to strengthen weakened pelvic muscles that can cause the bladder, the uterus and other organs to sag into the vaginal area long has been controversial. After years of complaints from women about bleeding, leaking bladders, searing pain and other ailments, the Food and Drug Administration stopped the sale and distribution of pelvic mesh in 2019 for treating organ prolapse. By then, the mesh had been implanted in millions of women around the globe.
“Both defendants have admitted to participating in a reprehensible bribery and kickback scheme to exploit women across the country,” said Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn.
Dr. Walker agreed to forfeit about $800,000, and Mr. Barber agreed to forfeit about $1.1 million.
Jodi Avergun, a lawyer for Dr. Walker, said that her client’s involvement in the scheme “was unfortunate” and that he “accepted responsibility for his actions in order to move forward and resume his career caring for patients.”
The criminal case may be over, but civil litigation continues. In December, a lawsuit filed on behalf of 188 women who claimed to have been victimized by the network was filed in a Florida circuit court. The lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages, named some two dozen defendants, including Mr. Barber, Dr. Walker and other doctors.