Former UCLA researcher pleads guilty to reading celeb and co-worker medical records

By Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, AP
Friday, January 8, 2010

Ex-UCLA researcher pleads guilty to record breach

LOS ANGELES — A former UCLA School of Medicine researcher pleaded guilty to reading confidential medical records of celebrities, high-profile patients and his co-workers in federal court on Friday.

Los Angeles resident Huping Zhou, 38, entered a conditional guilty plea to four counts of violating federal medical privacy laws in a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrich.

Zhou, who was dismissed from UCLA for job performance issues on Nov. 14, 2003, wrongly viewed UCLA patient records 323 times between Oct. 29 and Nov. 19 that year, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Most of the records breaches involved well-recognized celebrities, Mrozek said. To protect their privacy, patients were not named in the plea agreement but identified by the initials M.D. (aka M.K.); J.F. (aka D.S) and D.C.

Zhou is scheduled for sentencing March 22, and could face a maximum penalty of four years in federal prison.

Zhou, who is a licensed cardiothoracic surgeon in China and was provided a Mandarin translation of his plea agreement, had “no idea that looking at another person’s medical records was a federal criminal violation for which you could go to jail,” said his attorney Edward Robinson.

Robinson said the guilty plea was conditional because Zhou reserves the right to argue that his case should have been dismissed and that he can withdraw his guilty plea in appeals, which Robinson intends to file for after sentencing.

“There’s absolutely no proof that he disseminated (the records), gave them to anyone, merely that he just looked,” said Robinson. “There’s no way on earth Huping knew, and most likely nobody else would know in his situation, that looking at those records was a federal crime.”

In the plea agreement, federal prosecutors disagree, saying Zhou “fully knew that he was not allowed to obtain (medical records) for patients without a valid medical reason related to his job.”

A trial for medical privacy violations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is very rare, and Zhou is “one of the first people in the nation to be convicted of violating the privacy provisions,” said Mrozek.

In a statement, UCLA officials said they were pleased with the prosecution and “during the past few months, the UCLA Health System has put in place a number of safeguards to help ensure patient confidentiality.”

Another former UCLA employee, Lawanda Jackson, pleaded guilty to viewing information on Britney Spears, Farrah Fawcett and other high profile celebrities in 2008. Jackson later sold the information to the National Enquirer.

Jackson died from complications of breast cancer before she could be sentenced. She was 50.

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