God Wears a Robe - Part 4
Updated: Sep 7
By: Donald V. Watkins
© Copyrighted and Published on January 22, 2020
Dr. Donatus O. Mbanefo: A Case Study in Xenophobia
Dr. Donatus O. Mbanefo, M.D., is a native of Onitsha, Nigeria. He is also a U.S. citizen from Columbus, Georgia. Dr. Mbanefo is married and has six children.
Most Americans stereotype Nigerians as African "scam artists" who are perpetually trying to scam people out of money through fraudulent email schemes. Many white Americans view them as untrustworthy and/or crooks. President Donald J. Trump, who loves to fan the flames of xenophobia in America, refers to Nigeria as one of those "shithole" African nations.
In truth, if all of the losses from Nigerian email scams were added up, they would be a drop in the bucket when compared to the $13 trillion Americans lost during the Great Recession of 2008 that was created by greedy Wall Street bankers who crashed the global economy.
To put things in a proper perspective for Americans, Nigeria, a British colony until the nation obtained its independence in 1960, has a population of 180 million people. Its economy is diverse and is led by oil production and mining industries. The country has its own stock exchange, which allows publicly traded Nigerian companies to co-list on the London Stock Exchange. Nigeria also has its own version of a federal reserve bank.
Three decades ago, Nigeria embarked upon the largest construction project in the history of mankind. The country created a brand-new national capitol city called Abuja in the middle of a 30 square mile jungle area. Abuja, which is an ultra-modern city with six-star hotels, beautiful high-rise buildings, state-of-the-art infrastructure, modern homes and a new international airport, is home to 4 million Nigerians today. The creation of Abuja was the greatest construction project since the Great Pyramids in Egypt. The size and scope of the project dwarfs any structure Donald Trump constructed in New York City, or elsewhere.
Mbanefo's Life Since Childhood Has Been Stellar
In Nigeria, parents place a premium on education for their children. Dr. Mbanefo's parents honored this tradition.
Dr. Mbanefo attended the prestigious Hope Waddell Training School in Calabar, Nigeria. From 1975 to 1977, Dr. Mbanefo attended Willesden College of Technology in London where he received an Advanced Level General Certificate of Education with a concentration in physics, chemistry, biology, electromagnetism, calculus, advanced algebra, and motion, heat, light and sound. He also received a certification in optometry from City College in London, England in 1977.
In 1982, Dr. Mbanefo obtained a Bachelor of Medicine Degree from the College of Medicine in Ibadan, Nigeria. He received his medical license in Nigeria after his housemanship the following year. Between 1995 and 1997, he completed his residency at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia while in the U.S. on a visitor's visa.
License to Practice Medicine in the U.S.
Dr. Mbanefo returned to the U.S. in 2008 to complete the requirements for obtaining his U.S. medical license. In December of 2012, Dr. Mbanefo received his medical license in Georgia. At this point, he held valid medical licenses in Georgia and Nigeria (in 1982).
In January of 2013, Dr. Mbanefo received a license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to prescribe narcotics like Oxycodone, Percocet, Lorcet, Zanax and other controlled substances.
Dr. Mbanefo studied for and passed his licensing examinations while he was a resident of California. After being licensed to practice medicine in the State of Georgia, he registered with several professional job sites and was matched by one of them, DocCafe.com,to the Relief Institute of Columbus. This medical center was one of three privately-owned pain medicine clinics operated by a Jamaican family consisting of Alexander Biggs, Nilaija Biggs, and Carol Biggs. The family operated these clinics from 2011 to 2014.
After discussions with the Biggs family, Dr. Mbanefo accepted a position at the Relief Institute of Columbus. In March of 2013, Dr. Mbanefo was hired as an independent contractor to perform medical services within the scope of his licensed areas of expertise. He was paid a flat rate of $1,200 per day, regardless of the number of patients he treated. There were no bonuses in his contract that were associated with the volume of business he serviced or generated. Dr. Mbanefo worked as the sole physician at the Relief Institute from Monday through Thursday.
A DEA investigation into the Biggs Family's Pain Clinics
What Dr. Mbanefo did not know at the time he was hired at the Relief Institute was the fact that the pain management clinics operated by the Biggs family were under investigation by the DEA and Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) for operating a suspected pill mill for prescription narcotics. The vacancy Dr. Mbanefo filled was created when a doctor of Indian descent left the clinic after he was visited there by DEA agents. Dr. Mbanefo had been told by the Biggs that this doctor quit his job because he was suffering from Parkinson's disease.
Within a matter of weeks Dr. Mbanefo began to have concerns about the operations of the Relief Institute. He found out from an ex-staffer that the Indian doctor actually left the clinic under questionable circumstances. This prompted Dr. Mbanefo to contact the DEA to discuss his concerns about working conditions and other aspects of the clinic's operations. He also sought DEA guidelines relating to the administration of prescription narcotics.
The first discussion Dr. Mbanefo had with the DEA was by telephone and it was cordial. However, it did not yield the guidance Dr. Mbanefo was seeking on prescriptions for narcotics. The DEA agent arranged for a follow-up meeting with another DEA agent. When Dr. Mbanefo arrived at this meeting, he was met by the DEA agent, as well as agents from the GBI. These agents, all of whom were white, were hostile towards Dr. Mbanefo.
The federal and state agents provided no guidance to Dr.Mbanefo on administering prescription drugs, they demanded that he sign a document agreeing to surrender his medical license (which he refused), and asked him to call Alexander Biggs in their presence to ask certain pre-prepared questions about the clinic's operations. Dr. Mbanefo agreed to make this call because he shared some of the same concerns (i.e., Why the clinic accepted cash payment only?; Why patients who spent the largest amount of money with the clinic were seen first?; Why the name of the business had been changed?; Why there was a continuing influx of out-of-state patients?; etc.).
Dr. Mbanefo quit his job at the Relief Institute on June 13, 2013, approximately one week after his in-person meeting with the DEA and GBI agents. Dr. Mbanefo did not know at the time that DEA agents sent an undercover agent posing as a patient with back pain to the clinic on two occasions within three weeks of his employment with the Relief Institute. The undercover agent was treated by Dr. Mbanefo on each occasion. The treatment sessions were recorded on video.
During the undercover agent's first visit with Dr. Mbanefo, she provided him with a fake MRI from an actual MRI provider and a fake pharmacy profile from a real pharmacy. Dr. Mbanefo verified the MRI reading by calling the MRI provider to confirm the cause of her back pain. He also called the pharmacy to confirm the pharmacy profile she had given him. Both medical providers confirmed the accuracy of the documents, even though they were false documents. Dr. Mbanefo was shocked that this undercover agent had been prescribed 450 narcotic pills per month. He immediately slashed the prescription to 150 pills, or five per day for one month. He also decreased the strength of the pills.
On each occasion, Dr. Mbanefo reviewed the undercover agent's diagnostic chart and treatment history before subjecting her to a physical examination in conformity with the acceptable standards of medical treatment for pain management in Georgia.
Georgia Board of Medicine Clears Dr. Mbanefo
After the DEA and GBI wrapped up their investigation of the pain clinics operated by the Biggs family, they sent a report to the Georgia Board of Medicine regarding Dr. Mbanefo's pain treatment practices. In 2014, the Board held a hearing regarding Dr. Mbanefo's work at the Relief Institute. The Board reviewed the evidence submitted by the DEA and GBI agents and found it insufficient to revoke or suspend Dr. Mbanefo's medical license.
Dr. Mbanfeo found other medical work with QCT, a medical provider for the U.S. Army, and GEO, a medical provider for the Department of Corrections for the state of Georgia.
In 2015, the DEA refused to renew Dr. Mbanefo's DEA license to prescribe controlled substances.
Selective Prosecution Based on Race
In February of 2016, federal prosecutors indicted the Biggs family members who are Jamaicans, Dr. Mbanefo, who is Nigerian, an African-American doctor in his 80s, and the Indian doctor referenced earlier. They were charged with two counts of conspiracy -- operating a pill mill and money laundering. Dr. Mbanefo was also charged with two counts of prescribing narcotics to the undercover agent.
Dr. Mbanefo pleaded "Not Guilty" to the charges. He proceeded to trial in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson in Valdosta, Georgia.
As expected, none of the 18 to 20 white doctors who worked at the three Biggs-owned clinics from 2011 to 2014 were charged with a crime, even though some of them prescribed far more controlled substances than Dr. Mbanefo and, unlike Mbanefo, they had provisions in their contracts for the payment of bonuses based upon an increase in the volume of patients they treated. In essence, federal prosecutors gave the clinics' white doctors a prosecutorial pass while targeting and charging the people of color -- the three Jamaican owners, an African doctor (Dr. Mbanefo), an Indian doctor, and an African-American doctor -- with operating the clinics in violation of federal laws.
The African-American doctor charged in this case is Dr. William Bacon, who was 80-years-old and a highly respected orthopaedic surgeon with an immaculate professional reputation when he was targeted by prosecutors. Dr. Bacon is a former consultant/surgeon for the U.S. Army with a distinguished record of service to America. Dr. Bacon, who is married, has four adult children. Two of them are attorneys, one is an accountant, and one is a robotic surgeon.
Two of the clinics' white doctors testified for the prosecution about their work experiences at the clinics. Their concerns about the clinics' operations were similar in nature to the ones Dr. Mbanefo voiced to the DEA and GBI agents. Neither one of these doctors implicated Dr. Mbanefo in any wrongdoing. Like Mbanefo, both of these doctors quit their jobs once they discovered what was going on.
A jury of 9 whites and 3 blacks found Dr. Mbanefo guilty on one count of conspiracy and two counts of prescribing controlled substances to the undercover agent who presented with a fake MRI and a fake pharmacy profile. Dr. Bacon was convicted, as well.
At the sentencing hearing, Judge Lawson observed that other doctors at the Biggs family's three pain clinics were equally culpable as Dr. Mbanefo, but they were not charged. Prosecutors had no response to this observation regarding the preferential treatment accorded to the white physicians. Despite this obvious disparate treatment of Dr. Mbanefo (and Dr. Bacon), Judge Lawson refused to set aside the jury verdict in Dr. Mbanefo's case based upon his personal observation of selective prosecution. He had the power to render fair and impartial justice in his courtroom, but he chose to rubber-stamp the prosecutors' selective prosecution based upon race, national origin, and xenophobia.
Judge Lawson sentenced Dr. Mbanefo to 96 months in prison. In the aftermath of this ordeal, Dr. Mbanefo lost his job, his medical license in Georgia, his home, and his physical freedom. No adverse action was taken against the white doctors who worked for the clinics, or the DEA and GBI agents or white prosecutors who engaged in selective prosecution and practiced blatant xenophobia and racism against Dr. Mbanefo.
Tomorrow, we will present the "Conclusion" of "God Wears a Robe" - Part 5.