Saturday, June 28, 2014

Diane Sawyer and the Non-Story of Lawson Akpulonu

With Diane Sawyer in the news about leaving the news, I thought it was timely to share the story I think of whenever I hear her name. It's the story what she considered worth reporting -- or rather, not worth reporting. It turned out to be the story of a serial rapist.

Tentative Curiosity

In March of 1995, I was at Life Dynamics and we were  working on Lime 5, a book about abortion malpractice and its enablers. We got a call from one of Diane Sawyer's assistants. Ms. Sawyer, we were told, had heard rumors that some abortion facilities were selling abortions to women who were not, in fact, pregnant; they just thought they were.

We told Ms. Sawyer's assistant that this was a slow news day kind of story that local news stations would often do: send female reporters to abortion clinic with male reporter's urine specimens, and then document being told that they were pregnant and the attempts to sell them abortions.

We supplied the assistant with what he asked for -- a list of abortionists who were still practicing even after having been caught selling abortions to women who were not pregnant. But we also included a list of abortionists who were a serious public health threat and were still practicing, suggesting that these fellows might make a more news worthy project than rehashing something local news organizations across the country had been doing for over twenty years.

The Big Tip

While I was compiling documentation and verifying that certain quacks were still in practice, we got a call from a nurse in California. She told us, "I'd always thought that the stories of seedy abortion mills were just a bunch of bogus stories made up by right to lifers. But I just quit a job at one of those seedy mills, and I want to report this guy before something terrible happens."

Dr. Lawson Akpulonu
This nurse told us that she had answered a help wanted ad placed by Dr. Lawson Akpulonu, and had been hired on the spot on January 14, 1995. After just four hours, she was so appalled that she quit. After wondering what to do, she saw an advertisement for Life Dynamics' abortion malpractice litigation program, and decided that we were the right people to call.

Akpulonu, she told us, had the filthiest clinic she'd ever seen. She saw life-threatening conditions including:
  • rusty metal speculums and forceps
  • instruments cleaned with dishwashing liquid
  • lack of lifesaving equipment or  apparatus for administering anesthesia
  • cockroaches in the operating room
  • rancid blood smell in rooms
  • used needles left on tables in the operating room
  • improper handling of fetal materials
Scott helped her to prepare a complaint for the California medical board. In her complaint, she reiterated what she'd told Scott, and warned the medical board:
    "When Akpulonu began the abortion procedures, he did not allow anyone else in the room with him. There was no nurse or assistant with him.... I truly believe that someone will become seriously injured if something is not done immediately."
We also asked her if she would be willing to talk to Diane Sawyer about what she'd seen. She said absolutely, that she wanted this guy exposed for what he was before something terrible happened to any of his patients. We contacted Diane Sawyer's assistant and faxed him a copy of the complaint the nurse was about to file. Diane Sawyer had, in her hot little hands, the entire story, before it had even been handed off to the medical board.

Averting Her Eyes 

The next day, Diane Sawyer's assistant called us back, told us that Miss Sawyer had reviewed all the material we'd sent her, and had decided that seedy abortion facilities in general and Lawson Akpulonu in particular were "a non-story."

A few days later all hell broke loose.

The medical board in California went public with a complaint from a patient they identified as "A. A." While under anesthesia for an abortion by Akpulonu at his Midland Medical Center on January 28, 1995:

    The patient awoke to find Akpulonu raping her."A.A. awoke to find respondent raping her; he had penetrated her vagina with his penis. Respondent gave patient A.A. a shot and she went back to sleep. When patient A.A. woke up a second time, she saw respondent next to her. She saw his erect penis out of his pants. She tried to push him away. ... Respondent then gave her another shot and she went back to sleep. When patient A.A. awoke for a third time, she found her sweater had been removed and her bra partially pulled down exposing her right breast. Respondent was caressing patient A.A.'s body. ...when patient A.A. tried to scream, respondent placed his hand over her mouth. Respondent told patient A.A. she had a beautiful body. He said she was a very nice girl and a very sexy girl while he continued rubbing her inside her blouse and bra. He kissed her right breast. He then placed his business card inside her bra and said she could call him anytime"
What Diane Sawyer had dismissed it as "a non-story" turned out to be quite a bombshell. More reports of similar abuse started pouring in from other patients once A.A. had the courage go come forward.

An Alarming History

If Diane Sawyer had turned over a few rocks, she would have found an even greater scandal. Just like the Gosnell case in Pennsylvania, California authorities had long known that Akpulonu was a danger to women and had failed to shut him down. Another former employee had told the Medical Board that Akpulonu did not sterilize instruments, used untrained assistants in surgery, and flushed fetal remains down the toilet. She also reported being hired with no medical training or experience, and being required to assist in surgery. She quit after three weeks.

Unlike those in Pennsylvania, California authorities actually did poke their noses inside abortion clinics. Inspections of Akpulonu's clinic dating from 1991 through 1994 had found deplorable conditions including:
  • Filthy rest room with no toilet paper
  • Unsterile instruments being used in operating room
  • No registered nurse at the facility
  • Akpulonu performing abortions alone, with no assistant
  • Employees trained to clean hoses used in medical procedures in running cold water by working the hoses manually to flush out all blood and tissue
  • A stench of rotting tissues
  • A surgery room splattered with blood and other rooms were filled with dust
  • Rat droppings were found in the surgery room and hallway
  • Akpulonu had brought his entire staff into the examination room to observe a patient who had a severe case of genital warts.
  • No on-site equipment for handling emergencies
  • Fetal remains up to 24 weeks flushed down the garbage disposal or toilets
  • Staff re-using single use equipment
  • A dirty autoclave containing rusty, dirty, tissue-encrusted instruments
  • No soap, antiseptic, or towels at hand-washing facilities
So at the time we contacted Diane Sawyer's assistant and sent her the nurse's complaint, Akpulonu already had a four-year history of dangerous behavior posing a threat to women's health and lives. Ms. Sawyer would have quickly uncovered this situation, as did we, with a single fax to the California medical board. But she and her staff either did not bother to investigate, or had investigated and reviewed this four year string of disgusting inspections and had still dismissed it as "a non-story."

 The Sawyer-Akpulonu Legacy

Kermit Gosnell
After the allegations of patient A.A. became public, a warrant was issued for Akpulonu's arrest on charges of rape. He fled. His whereabouts are still unknown. He and his facility remain "a non-story," very much like the way the "house of horrors" Kermit Gosnell was running in Pennsylvania was dismissed by Sawyer-caliber journalists as just "a local story" and not worth a second glance on their part.

Diane Sawyer, if she'd had a shred of journalistic integrity, would have skulked off in vile disgrace after the Akpulonu story broke no thanks to her. Instead, she continued to pick and choose what the public should know about for decades. Her departure from the newsroom is a long overdue good riddance to bad rubbish.

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