O.C. Animal Clinic Charged
State says Fountain Valley center falsified records and misrepresented many employees' qualifications. 

September 7, 2001

The Orange County Register 

FOUNTAIN VALLEY -- All-Care Animal Referral Center illegally employed a former heavy-equipment operator with no veterinary training as its director of surgery, falsified medical records and misrepresented the qualifications of numerous employees, according to charges filed by the state Attorney General's Office. 

The complaint, which follows a 11/2-year investigation by the California Veterinary Medical Board, heartened dozens of pet owners who have filed complaints and lawsuits against the prominent hospital, which treats 30,000 animals per year from around Southern California.

If convicted in an administrative hearing, Dr. Robert Rooks, the director of All-Care, could lose his license and face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

The hospital can continue to operate until a ruling is issued in the case, which could take up to two years.

A spokesman said Rooks is out of the country and declined further comment. A statement issued by the hospital said, "Dr. Rooks take(s) these allegations seriously, though we believe these charges will ultimately be dismissed or refuted."

Among the accusations in the complaint filed Aug. 28:

From 1995 to 1998, Mike Wilt, a "heavy-equipment operator with no veterinary training," operated on numerous pets and was videotaped by a veterinary magazine performing "tube-installation surgery on a cat."

State law forbids anyone without a veterinary license from operating on animals. Employing an unqualified surgeon is also illegal.

In 1997, Rooks allegedly told Wilt to falsify four medical records "because we're being sued." The records detailed surgical anesthesia performed on a 10-year-old Akita named Honey Bear, who reportedly died after multiple surgeries at the hospital.

Rooks allegedly lied to patients about the qualifications of Linda Hall and Craig Bergstrom, two purported specialists at the hospital. Rooks told patients that Hall was an internal-medicine specialist and Bergstrom a neurologist.

Neither has completed the four-year residency and examinations required for board certification as a specialist. The complaint alleges that Rooks lied because he thought "it is important for people to feel that they are getting the best care."

The complaint identifies the employees by their initials. Former employees named Wilt and Hall.

Bergstrom, who still works at the hospital, said: "I think we've got disgruntled former employees who've made accusations that aren't true. I've always been very careful not to tell people I am board-certified."

Wilt and Hall, who have left All-Care, could not be reached for comment.

Joanna Patrice, a Studio City resident whose complaints against the hospital last year launched the veterinary board's inquiry, said: "I feel wonderful (about the charges). I think it's going to save the lives of a lot of animals in the future."

After her cat died in 1997 following surgery, Patrice filed a lawsuit that All-Care settled for $1,500.

At the hospital Thursday, spokesman Tim McElroy said All-Care has 150 employees on its payroll, about 20 of whom are doctors. At any given time, there are up to eight doctors and 30 veterinary technicians caring for about 50 animals, he said.

McElroy declined to comment on Wilt's or Hall's qualifications. When asked about Bergstrom, who is listed on a roster as part of All-Care's internal-medicine staff, McElroy said: "I didn't read the charges from page to page. But (Bergstrom's) a great guy. His status won't change."

Linda Schneider, the deputy attorney general who filed the complaint, would not comment on the case.

The hospital's statement says many complaints come from former patients who express pain at losing a pet "by attacking us."

Many pet owners swear by All-Care. Julie Shattuck, whose beagle was cured there, said in an e-mail, "I am a very grateful, thankful pet owner, who wrote a long letter to Dr. Rooks thanking him for saving our dog's life."

But Maria Fahie, a former All-Care surgeon who now runs a hospital in Tustin, corroborated many of the complaint's allegations.

Fahie said she left in 1999 after two years at the hospital, partly because "I didn't agree with things" Rooks did. Neither Bergstrom nor Hall were certified specialists, she said.

Lying about their status, she said, would be "very serious. ... It's a big complaint people I know have had with the hospital. Sometimes Dr. Rooks was the only board- certified doctor there. ... It's not right at all."

Fahie said Rooks lied about the qualifications because "that's what the client demands. They want a specialist these days."

She never complained about the practice, she said, because "I tried to do my work and not get involved in anything there."

While on the job, she frequently saw animals receiving "poor care. ... I saw things that had been missed," she said, citing one instance in which drugs prescribed as needing to be administered intravenously were inserted in an animal's mouth.

She said the hospital also frequently low-balled estimates to entice pet owners to agree to its care. "If you told them it was going to cost $2,000, they'd have the animal put to sleep," she said.

Shawna Savage, an employee who was fired in 1998 after getting in a fight outside the hospital, said she was hired as a veterinary assistant in 1996 even though she is a convicted drug felon. An administrator at the hospital told her to leave the conviction off her application, she said.

Two technicians were often left to monitor 40 dogs at night, Savage said. Dogs were left lying in their urine, and technicians frequently used white-out to alter medical records, she said.

For Regina Stewart, who once gave tours at the hospital and watched her dog die in June after being treated for pneumonia, the charges feel like bittersweet vindication. 

Recalling Max, her 10-year-old collie, the Westminster resident sighed and said, "I am so sorry I took my pet to that hospital." 

Register staff writer Tony Saavedra contributed to this report.