By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Moreover, the story of the Bellaire Cancer Treatment Center, a tangled tale of lies, threats, lawsuits and unpaid debts, may distract enough from Fernandez's apparent misdeeds to get him reinstated. "I'm not gonna lily-white it for you," says center president Russell Mackert. "I'll be honest -- it doesn't look that great."
Inside the Bellaire Cancer Treatment Center, the odor of stale cigarette smoke lingers like an especially bad joke. Colorful abstract prints that were once almost repossessed hang on the walls, breathing a hint of life into the collection of offices and waiting rooms. The decor offers little hint of the building's purpose, save for a few piles of cancer brochures and a radiation warning on the door to the room that houses the linear accelerator.
Bill Kubricht leans back in a chair in the center's kitchenette and finishes a Benson & Hedges Menthol Light 100, which he drops into a plastic cup filled with butts and water. A burly, easygoing man prone to cracking jokes, Kubricht describes practically everyone as his good friend, at least at one time. The center is technically owned by a family trust controlled by his daughter, but it's clearly his place, and he makes all the big decisions. Since the center opened in 1993, scraping together the cash to keep the center afloat and fending off creditors has been his primary function. "I owe a ton of money," Kubricht says.
That doesn't especially bother him, though, because he approaches business with the same relaxed attitude with which he approaches life. "The key to it is, never loan more than you can afford to throw away," he says.
Owning the center wasn't part of Kubricht's original plan. A native Houstonian, he had trained as a medical physicist at M.D. Anderson, a job that involves administering and measuring radiation in the treatment of cancer. He later worked at the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Baton Rouge before resigning in the mid-1980s, the result of a radiation leak for which he says he took the fall, and consulted on the design and construction of several freestanding cancer centers in Louisiana before moving back to Houston in 1990.
When Carlos Fernandez heard about Kubricht from a mutual associate, he made contact immediately. Fernandez, a Bolivian-born radiation oncologist who had also trained at M.D. Anderson, wanted to build a cancer treatment center, though he didn't have the expertise to manage the technical details. The two hit it off, and Fernandez hired Kubricht as a consultant in late 1990.
The two scouted various locations, but nothing materialized until Bellaire Hospital contacted Fernandez and proposed that he build the center adjacent to the institution. On September 5, 1991, the mayor of Bellaire, a representative from Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire's office and other functionaries attended a groundbreaking ceremony.
Shortly thereafter, however, Bellaire Hospital encountered some internal distractions and the deal fell through, putting Fernandez in a tight spot -- after more than a decade at Memorial Southwest Hospital, he'd been forced out when that facility signed an exclusive contract with two other doctors to provide radiation oncology services. He maintained a private office, but without access to the equipment necessary to do the job, he effectively had no practice, and no income. "I was desperate," Fernandez says.
The doctor's fortunes turned the following April, however, when Bellaire Hospital was sold to Columbia Hospital Corp., and the new owner decided to move forward with the project. Fernandez and Kubricht arranged to buy the land from Columbia and worked out a deal with General Electric Medical Systems to finance the center's construction and equipment, including the big-ticket linear accelerator.
To help defray the up-front costs, Kubricht recruited Florida investor Bryan Miller, who supplied a $300,000 letter of credit in exchange for a chunk of the business. Kubricht himself was now a minority shareholder, having taken a percentage of the business in lieu of pay for his consulting work.
The partnership began to unravel before the $2.6 million facility, dubbed the Houston Cancer Care Center, was even finished. Kubricht says that Fernandez wouldn't come up with any down payment, and that Miller threatened to torpedo the whole thing unless the doctor relinquished his majority stake. Fernandez counters that he unloaded his share after it became clear that his partners would never be able to make the business succeed (though he claimed at the Board of Medical Examiners hearing that the pair had taken the business away from him). "They were not the right people to be mixed with," he says. "I didn't see it as a profitable business venture."
Regardless, Fernandez traded his ownership for a contract that gave him exclusive rights to practice at the center, an annual salary of $125,000 to serve as the official medical director (a job that essentially amounted to supervising himself) and an additional $40,000. By then, the center had held its grand-opening celebration and was supposed to have been up and running, but a dispute with the city of Bellaire over right-of-way stalled the process. Finally, in October 1993, Houston Cancer Care Center saw its first patients.
One of them, Dorothy Peterson, had been seeing Fernandez since before the grand opening in May. Peterson had a tumor on the back of her tongue that needed radiation therapy, and he performed a gold seed implant at Bellaire Hospital. But he couldn't use the linear accelerator until the center officially opened, and rather than refer Peterson elsewhere for that procedure, he waited for months to begin treatment. By then the cancer had spread to the bone, and Peterson died soon thereafter.