Formal charges have been brought against a Carmel Valley doctor who is accused of defrauding thousands of patients by selling them hydroxychloroquine as a “cure” for COVID-19.
Federal agents indicted Dr. Jennings Staley on one count of felony mail fraud for selling the drug used to treat patients with autoimmune disorders such as Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and to prevent malaria.
The drug gained national attention in the weeks following the pandemic’s arrival to the United States after President Trump touted it as a potential “game-changer” for the deadly coronavirus strain. The president also says he is now taking hydroxychloroquine despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning of harmful side-effects in COVID-19 patients as numerous studies have found the drug was not effective in treating the coronavirus.
According to the May 20 indictment, undercover federal agents contacted Dr. Staley, owner and operator of Skinny Beach MedSpa after finding marketing materials advertising the “COVID-19 Concierge Medicine Pack (Family)” for $3,995 through the spa’s website.
In addition to the hydroxychloroquine, the COVID-19 kits came with a bottle of Viagra and Xanax to help with stress caused by the pandemic.
In a recorded phone call, an undercover agent posing as a customer said Staley filled them in on the prescription. Staley allegedly told the agent that if someone in the family contracted the virus that he would “activate” the medication by telling them the proper amount to ingest.
“I will be dosing it. I will activate it,” Staley told the agent, according to the new indictment. “You will own and possess these kits...When someone gets sick, we will start the loading on that person. We will load them and prophylax (sic) all of you.”
In addition, federal investigators say Staley touted the medication as an “amazing cure” for those sick with the deadly viral disease.
“You could be short of breath and coughing at noon today, and if I start your hydroxychloroquine loading dose, you’ll feel 99% better by noon tomorrow,” Staley allegedly told agents during an April 3 call. “It’s preventative and curative. It’s hard to believe, it’s almost too good to be true.”
In the April 16 criminal complaint, agents said Staley then elaborated on the process of getting the hydroxychloroquine into the country and into San Diego County. He said his “broker” smuggled it in by telling customs officials that the medication was “sweet potato extract.”
The accusation that Staley iintentionally misled U.S. Customs by importing the item as "yam" or "sweet potato extract" was not included in the May 20 indictment.
And yet while Staley allegedly referred to hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle drug,” he made sure to tell agents there were no guarantees.
The indictment shows the undercover agent asking for confirmation on the effectiveness of the drug to treat COVID-19. “If I’m hearing you right, if I buy these kits from you, then that’s going to pretty much guarantee that neither my kids, my dad, my wife, any of us get sick, and if we are, it’s going to cure us, right?”
To which Staley responded, “Guaranteed,“ later adding, “Now, there’s always exceptions, your Dad could come here and die of a heart attack. A little red flag goes off when I hear the word guarantee...There are no guarantees in life. There are no guarantees of anything.”
Coincidentally, several studies have found patients taking hydroxychloroquine have a greater risk of suffering heart rhythm problems, according to the FDA.
Not long after, the COVID-19 Concierge Medical Pack arrived at the FBI’s headquarters. Inside the package, agents said they found marketing material listing the pros and cons of hydroxychloroquine, along with cards advertising for the spa.
According to the complaint, Staley continued to sell hydroxychloroquine on a separate website, “covid19medkits.com,” even after federal agents conducted a formal interview with him.
The indictment also shows that U.S. Customs had shipped packages of “yam extract” to Staley’s office throughout the month of April.
“Dr. Staley did not defraud anyone,” said Staley’s attorney, Patrick Griffin. ‘There is not a single victim in this case. There were around 30 COVID patients, not a single real patient was ever told these medications provided a 100% cure or made any promises.”
Griffin says 30 patients had purchased hydroxychloroquine from Staley and 15 others contacted the office for information but did not move forward. None, says Griffin, complained to law enforcement about Staley’s practice or conduct.
The indictment indicates agents started their investigation of Staley after watching local news reports.
As for the price, Griffin says his client only sold two “family COVID-19 kits,” one of which was to the federal undercover agent.
“Every patient stated clearly that they were not scammed and they felt there was no fraud. Dr. Staley did not need to push these medications, the President, his executive branch, and the most-watched cable news channel in America were pushing them to tens of millions of people every day.”
Moreover, Griffin accuses government agents of entrapping Staley and essentially ruining his life.
“The very same executive branch that was touting these medications for months has now turned around and destroyed the life of an Iraq veteran for doing the same thing. Dr. Staley’s life is now destroyed- he had to sell his medical practice and will never recover from these baseless accusations. Reasonable people can disagree about these medications but that is not a debate for the criminal courtroom. “