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Board accuses doctor of "coverup'

A surgeon from Largo's Diagnostic Clinic was accused Saturday of a Watergate-style coverup of an error he made.

Dr. William Near's original mistake, the Florida Board of Medicine said, was not that serious. He operated on the wrong side of a patient's spine a year ago at HCA Largo Medical Center.

He recognized the foul-up while the patient was in recovery, he said, and admitted it to her as soon as she woke up. She agreed to let him do the correct surgery the following day.

Near said he wasn't sure how it happened, other than he was extremely tired. It was his third operation that day.

He said he didn't charge the woman for either of the operations he performed on her.

Board members said they weren't upset about the surgical error since everyone makes mistakes.

What irked board members is that Near altered some medical records in ways that looked suspicious. When they asked him why he did it, he couldn't explain, except to say he was under great strain.

"There's still some confusion in my mind," Near said. "I wasn't thinking clearly."

"Is a better word to use "coverup?' " suggested Dr. Zachariah P. Zachariah, the board's chairman.

"No, sir," Near said.

Zachariah said he wasn't convinced. He said Near's actions reminded him of former President Nixon's efforts to hide his staff's link to the 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

"There are many things you've done here that are not kosher," the chairman told him. "I have serious concerns about your candor and your honesty."

Near, 37, said he regrets having given that impression. "Integrity is very important to me," he said.

The physician was fined $2,000 and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service.

In other action, the board continued its crackdown on doctors with "zipper problems."

Dr. Lionel Cavallini, a 60-year-old neurologist in Plant City, was suspended for abusing his influence with a patient.

Under questioning, Cavallini admitted having sex with not only that patient but also two others. The other two patients did not file complaints.

Records show Cavallini told investigators the affair came to an abrupt end when his wife discovered it.

The board praised the doctor for his candor. But it deplored what Zachariah called Cavallini's "zipper problems."

His primary defense was that the patient was promiscuous, and his attorney offered as evidence a deposition of the woman taken in a civil case. She admitted that while married she had sex with a co-worker, a carpet salesman and a man who responded to a classified ad she ran for a freezer.

The defense proved persuasive for some board members, but made others furious.

"He clearly did the wrong thing, and I really don't care what her sexual history is," said Pamela Campbell, a St. Petersburg lawyer who serves on the board. "It inflames me to see a victim be pulled apart this way in depositions."

That's why so few victims report sexual abuse by physicians, Campbell said.

She cited national surveys that indicate 10 to 13 percent of physicians have had sex with their patients.

Cavallini was given a year's suspension, but nine months of it were put on hold. After the suspension, he must serve five years' probation and pay a $5,000 fine.

He also is participating in the Physicians' Recovery Network, a program for doctors who are mentally ill or addicts. Some members of the board protested that the program isn't appropriate for sex abusers because they're not really addicts.

But its director, Dr. Roger Goetz of Jacksonville, said it is. It requires Cavallini to undergo psychotherapy and monitors his behavior carefully.

Cavallini told the board he regrets what he did. "This will never occur again," he promised.

Some board members noted the rehabilitation rates for sex-abusing doctors is abysmal. But Zachariah said he thinks Cavallini may be one of the success stories.

"I honestly don't believe this doctor's going to stray again because he knows if he does he's finished," Zachariah said. "He's finito."

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