The San Francisco Chronicle
Vacaville Prison Psychiatrist Had Drug Conviction
Doctor is reprimanded for 1989 misdemeanor
By Susan Sward
July 11, 1991
The chief psychiatrist at the Vacaville state prison, where three drug-related inmate deaths were reported last week, has been reprimanded in connection with his 1989 guilty plea to a federal charge of dispensing drugs without prescriptions, The Chronicle has learned.
The state Board of Medical Quality Assurance issued a decision effective last Saturday that Paul Ernest Morentz be given a letter of reprimand for dispensing prescription drugs without prescriptions to co-workers who were not his patients.
The reprimand stemmed from Morentz’s misdemeanor guilty plea in federal court in San Francisco, where prosecutors argued that he dispensed drugs to some people he never met. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, a term the court cut by six months and ended in late 1990.
The case led the state board’s executive officer, Kenneth Wagstaff, to recommend in August 1990 that Morentz’s license to practice be revoked or suspended, according to documents obtained by The Chronicle. The board, which regulates doctors, decided on a reprimand instead.
Although there is no connection between Morentz’s 1989 drug- dispensing case and the recent inmate deaths, critics said his conviction raises questions about his judgment.
In his post at Vacaville, Morentz administers a program that dispenses drugs to hundreds of inmates.
”We certainly feel there should be a doctor heading up the psychiatric program who doesn’t have this kind of conviction on his record,” said Joan Bryant, regional administrator for the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, which represents about 30 psychiatrists at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.
”When prosecutors say Dr. Morentz dispensed drugs to individuals he never even met, you have to have questions across the board about his judgment and leadership capability,” Bryant said.
Morentz is in charge of the outpatient psychiatric services at the 8,000-inmate medical facility in Vacaville, where the three inmates died of hyperthermia July 3.
All three were being treated with Haldol, an anti-psychotic drug that can make patients vulnerable to heat. Those deaths are being investigated by the Solano County coroner’s office, the Solano County district attorney’s office and the Assembly Public Safety Committee.
In documents filed in Morentz’s 1989 case, federal prosecutors opposed an early end to his probation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ross Nadel argued that the doctor’s misdemeanor ”arose out of a condition that posed a specific danger to other persons and society.”
” . . . Most of these people were not receiving any medical treatment from Dr. Morentz. Dr. Morentz had never even met some of the recipients of the medications he was providing,” Nadel wrote.
The federal prosecutor added that Morentz was ”fortunate, in that the case was resolved as a misdemeanor, because he could have been prosecuted for numerous felony offenses.”
In the case before the state medical board, state officials acknowledged that Morentz’s ”motive was not to make a profit for himself, but to pass along discount prices to his co-workers. There were no instances of drug abuse or physical harm to any individual.”
Morentz did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment, but his lawyer, Susan Raffanti, said her client ”has been practicing since 1953 and has a really outstanding record of community service and involvement. The misdemeanor to which he pleaded guilty involved letting people order wholesale through him” to obtain the drugs at lower prices.
The Department of Corrections’ spokesman, Tip Kindel, said Morentz was hired full-time in August 1989.
”The department was fully aware of everything that had happened to Dr. Morentz in the legal case. He made full disclosure,” he said.
”We did check with state authorities at the time we hired him and found he was fully licensed. Dr. Morentz has been doing an outstanding job in the position.”
Michael Bien, the lead attorney for inmates in a class-action suit filed in 1988 against the California Medical Facility, said he had advised state prison officials about Morentz’s case and raised the question of whether the doctor was qualified for his job.
”I thought it was unusual that the Department of Corrections didn’t act concerning Dr. Morentz,” Bien said.