FAYETTEVILLE -- A former pathologist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pleaded guilty Thursday to involuntary manslaughter for making a wrong diagnosis in 2014 and lying that another pathologist concurred with him.
Robert Morris Levy, 53, reviewed thousands of lab results since he started work in 2005 at the Veterans Health Care Center of the Ozarks. A review of his work found 30 cases in which he missed the diagnosis. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter in August in three of those cases that had resulted in the patient's death. He agreed to a plead guilty Thursday in a plea bargain. He also pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud in his effort to conceal his substance abuse.
Levy was found drunk on the job in 2016, court records show. He was required to complete a drug rehabilitation program before returning to work and then submit blood and urine samples for tests. He passed 42 such tests in two years.
Investigators found he did so by using a drug that intoxicates like alcohol, but isn't traceable by breath, blood or urine tests for alcohol.
Levy faces up to 28 years in prison. He will be sentenced at a later date.
Levy's job paid $225,000 a year, according to his indictment. Levy was indicted on three counts of involuntary manslaughter, 12 counts each of wire fraud and mail fraud and four counts of giving false statements to conceal his substance abuse.
Thursday's change of plea hearing took place by video conference at 2:30 p.m. in light of the continuing coronavirus pandemic. U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks presided during the hearing. Levy has remained in the Washington County Detention Center since his arrest. He was denied release on bond in a hearing in September.
The criminal investigation of Levy's substance abuse arose from his March 1, 2018, arrest for driving while intoxicated. The charge was later dismissed because police tests also found no alcohol. Still, the VA suspended Levy after his arrest.
The system fired him the next month during the federal investigation that discovered drug purchases and later led to his indictment.
Levy's role at the health care system was to examine test results of tissue and fluid samples to determine illnesses, if any.
The review of his cases by other pathologists took until May 2019. Those pathologists found 30 missed diagnoses posing serious health risks to patients, according to results released May 31, 2019, by the health care system. He was indicted Aug. 16.
The fatal missed diagnoses are cited in the indictment.
Overall, pathologists found 3,029 errors out of 33,902 cases, but most patients didn't suffer long-term ill effects, according to the review.
The 3,029 errors out of 33,902 cases make for an error rate of 8.9% compared to a pathology practice average of 0.7%, according to veterans department figures.
Levy was monitored for alcohol abuse after administrators at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks received a report he was intoxicated while assisting in an ultrasound-guided taking of a sample from a patient's liver. That report was March 22, 2016, according to court records.
A blood test at the time showed Levy's blood alcohol level at more than 0.39.
"For a normal human being, a 0.396 would be comatose level," special agent Kris Raper of the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Veterans Affairs testified at a bond hearing for Levy in September.
A 2016 review of his work didn't find any missed diagnoses by Levy, according to the Ozark System. The medical center put Levy on leave and through substance abuse treatment after the 2016 test. The center later put him back to work, but required him to provide random blood and urine samples for testing.
Levy then bought a potent, dangerous drug to get intoxicated by a method that wouldn't show up in blood or urine tests, the indictment says. The fraud counts stem from the purchases of the drug with the intent to keep his job while evading the testing. Investigators found Levy bought the drug 12 times online starting June 30, 2017.
The drug Levy used is called "2m-2b," the indictment says. The chemical is so hard to detect the Arkansas Crime Laboratory in Little Rock had to order a new test kit to confirm the drug in a sample of Levy's blood, Raper testified. The agent said Levy's case was the first time the Crime Laboratory had tested for the drug.
Levy passed 42 blood or urine tests, an average of two a month, according to his indictment.
Levy's drug use was discovered after March 1, 2018, after a Washington County Sheriff's Office deputy saw him walking toward his car at the U.S. Post Office on Dickson Street in Fayetteville. The deputy thought Levy was intoxicated and held him until a police officer arrived. The officer arrested Levy for driving while intoxicated because Levy drove to the Post Office and failed a field sobriety test.
The three breathalyzer tests Levy took immediately following his arrest reported an "interfering substance" each time, police records show. The DWI charge was later dismissed after Levy's blood and urine samples taken after the arrest came back clear.
The drug passes through the body so quickly it would require three tests a week to ensure the subject wasn't using the substance, according to bond hearing testimony. The lack of a reliable regular test method for 2m-2b was a factor in deciding against allowing bond, U.S. Magistrate Erin L. Wiedemann, who presided at the bond hearing, said at the time. Levy has remained at the Washington County Detention Center ever since.