HAMMOND | The health care fraud trial of a former Merrillville ear, nose and throat doctor will move to South Bend from Hammond.
The move is to ensure he has a fair trial, a federal judge ruled Monday afternoon.
Mark Weinberger, 48, once known as the "Nose Doctor," was indicted on 22 counts of health care fraud in federal court almost five years ago. The government claims he filed insurance claims for surgeries he never performed, causing about $318,000 in damages.
Judge Philip P. Simon said he did not believe potential jurors in the region could put aside the avalanche of media coverage and the fact that Weinberger flip-flopped on his pleas, finally pleading not guilty.
"Exposure to reports of the plea deal is an especially troubling prospect, as the fact that Weinberger once agreed to plead guilty is a bell that cannot be effectively 'un-rung' in the mind of a juror," Simon wrote in his opinion and order.
Weinberger withdrew that plea in April after Simon rejected his plea agreement. If it had been accepted, that deal with prosecutors would have sealed a four-year prison sentence for the "America's Most Wanted" runaway. The maximum combined prison sentence for the charges could stretch more than 200 years.
"I simply refuse to relinquish my sentencing discretion," Simon said at the time.
Weinberger's attorneys, Stephen Scheele and Adam Tavitas, then fought for a change of venue, arguing there was no way their client could have a fair and impartial trial in a region where there has been extensive pretrial media coverage and where many residents were — or knew someone who had been — one of Weinberger's patients.
In state courts, hundreds have filed medical malpractice lawsuits against Weinberger; in one case, a jury awarded a deceased Valparaiso patients's estate $13 million. Weinberger fled the country in 2004 after that lawsuit was filed, and in 2009 Italian police found him hiding in the Alps. Weinberger has been in federal custody since his extradition shortly after his Italian arrest.
The health care fraud trial, scheduled for Jan. 9, is expected to last about two weeks. The deadline for another plea agreement is Dec. 23.