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The seeds of Norman Fenton’s downfall were planted in May 2005 when he testified in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg.
Fenton took the stand that day as an expert witness in the case against Perry Beale, a medical physicist who was accused of defrauding hospitals throughout central Virginia.
However, prosecutors learned soon after the hearing that Fenton, too, was a fraud.
They had recruited him as one of Virginia’s top inspectors of imaging equipment, a man with a client list 13 pages long, including Mary Washington Hospital and more than 220 other hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices.
Yet Fenton’s fame was founded on academic distinctions that he did not earn. In fact, he was a high school graduate who got his advanced degrees by clicking on a pop-up ad on the Internet.
Last month, Percival Norman Fenton returned to the same federal courthouse in Harrisonburg where he testified against Beale. He was sentenced to the same prison term that Beale received for some of the same crimes.
And it was Beale, sitting in a prison cell in Maryland, who helped bring him down.
Fenton said at Beale's hearing that he had never met Beale but had heard of him. The two were health physicists, members of a select group of medical experts who inspect radiation-producing machines such as mammography, X-ray and CT units.
Doctors, dentists, clinics and hospitals hire them to, among other tasks, make sure that the machines aren't delivering too much radiation, either to their patients or to workers.
The Virginia Department of Health maintains a list of about 150 of these private inspectors. Fenton and Beale were on the list for years and were popular with facilities in central Virginia.
By 2000, however, Culpeper Memorial Hospital had become unhappy with Beale and hired Fenton to replace him. Other hospitals did the same, and once inside those hospitals, Fenton saw that Beale was not doing the work correctly. He reported him to state and federal officials.
John L. Brownlee, U.S. attorney in Roanoke, said recently that as he was gathering evidence to prosecute Beale, he asked Fenton to help him understand what a medical physicist does and how the imaging machines work.
Fenton "impressed me enough at the time that I decided I would use him as a witness in our sentencing of Beale," Brownlee said.
In 2005, Beale, a 53-year-old resident of Stafford County, pleaded guilty to lying about his background and failing to do the work that hospitals paid him for. He was sentenced to 41/2 years in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution of $375,831.
Brownlee had no idea then that he would soon prosecute a similar case against Fenton.A capable worker
Fenton was born in Portsmouth, and this week celebrated his 57th birthday.
He attended George Washington University but did not graduate. Beginning in 1974, he worked as a technician at hospitals in Washington and Northern Virginia.
He left Mount Vernon Hospital in Alexandria to work for a private company in Rockville, Md. He began as a staff physicist there and 10 years later became the company president.
In the early 1990s, Fenton formed his own company, Diagnostic Medical Health Physics, and moved to Nellysford, near Wintergreen resort. He still lives there.
Those who know Fenton describe him as a good father, a capable worker and a good neighbor in Nelson County. He is a former PTA president and ran a charity golf tournament.
He could be counted on to attend events involving his children, wrote David M. Cameron, in a letter in court records. Cameron is pastor of Rockfish Presbyterian Church in Nellysford, which Fenton attends.
Fenton is separated from his wife, Dr. Barbara A. Fenton, a physician, who lives now in Montana. They have three children.
Court records also contain letters from former clients who defend Fenton, saying that while he didn't have the required academic background, he did have the knowledge to do his job.
"I have worked with many different physicists in the past 18 years, and I can say without reservation that Mr. Fenton is the most proficient physicist I have ever met," wrote Christopher L. Puckett, radiation safety officer for Carolinas Medical Center NorthEast in Concord, N.C.
But state and federal regulators insist that on-the-job training, of the type that Fenton had, is not enough for a medical physicist.Manufactured degrees
The federal Food and Drug Administration, which enforces the national safety standards for mammography, requires an inspector such as Fenton to have a master's or higher degree from an accredited college, with at least 20 hours of physics classes.
"The field is a multi-disciplinary field. It requires a lot of knowledge of physics and college-level experience," said Les Foldesi, director of the Division of Radiological Health for the Virginia Department of Health.
Fenton did not have the required academic credentials, so he created them. He told regulators in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee that he graduated from the University of San Moritz.
Only later did they learn that the University of San Moritz was an online diploma mill. Fenton got the degrees in 1998 by responding to an Internet ad.
He told investigators that after he replied to the ad, he talked with "a guy in New York" on the phone.
"What degree do you want?" the man asked.
"A master's degree," Fenton replied.
The degree cost $500, and the man threw in a
cum laudePh.D. for another $250.
Fenton told the man what courses he wanted, and the man said he would supply him with a backdated transcript.
One week later, two diplomas in radiation health sciences and a transcript arrived in the mail.
Fenton was an excellent student, according to his fake transcript. It said he graduated with a 3.65 grade-point average for his master's program and a 3.5 grade point average for his doctoral program.
After that, Fenton frequently signed his name "P. Norman Fenton, Ph.D."
Fenton also told investigators that in 1993 he went to a Rapid Print copy center in Waynesboro to make a fake certificate from the American Board of Diagnostic Medical Health Physics.
Fenton offered this certificate to the FDA, the Department of Veterans Affairs and state licensing agencies as proof of his graduate study, his clinical experience and his passing score on a qualifying exam.
Apparently no one inspected the certificate, because there is no such professional organization.Maryland's suspicions
Soon after Fenton testified against Beale, Maryland authorities began an investigation of him and reported what they found to the FDA.
Marc Griswold, a special agent in the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, received a fax from the Maryland Department of the Environment and began checking up on Fenton. As part of his investigation, Griswold went to the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md., to talk to Beale.
When Griswold confronted Fenton with what he had learned, Fenton admitted his deceit.
Asked why he used Beale to help build the case against Fenton, Brownlee, the prosecutor, replied, "No one knew more about Fenton than Beale."
In April, Fenton pleaded guilty to 48 counts of mail fraud and one count of perjury. The mail fraud represented the money he received from his clients.
The perjury occurred during his testimony against Beale. While Fenton was on the stand, a defense attorney asked specific questions about his degrees.
Last month Fenton was sentenced to 41/2 years in prison. He also was ordered to pay $400,000 in restitution to hospitals and clinics in five states.Public not harmed
Fenton declined to comment, through his attorney, Francis McQ. Lawrence of Charlottesville.
Lawrence pointed out that, in contrast to Beale, Fenton did the work that hospitals paid him for.
At his sentencing hearing, Fenton added: "At no time did I ever knowingly generate false data in any of my thousands of reports. Public health and safety was never compromised."
He also said that he testified in or reported four cases of fraud, and that he didn't regret doing so even though it "exposed" him to prosecution.
That left family and friends trying to understand why he thought he could get away with his deceit.
"I always thought my husband had completed his bachelor's degree from George Washington University," wrote Barbara Fenton in a letter to the court. "Strange as it would seem, apparently he thought so too."
Fenton's pastor, David Cameron, speculated that Fenton "was able to compartmentalize his academic background" to the point where he actually believed what he claimed.
Fenton said something similar at his sentencing hearing.
"Certainly, at the time of the Beale sentencing, in my mind, I believed my academic credentials were real," he said.
Fenton is expected to report soon to federal prison to begin serving his term.
For his "substantial" help in prosecuting Fenton, Beale received a one-year reduction in his own sentence. He is now being held in a halfway house in North Carolina and expects to be released in January.Staff librarian Craig Schulin contributed to this story. Jim Hall: 540/374-5433
BY JIM HALL
When the Virginia De partment of Health notified Norman Fentonâ€™s clients about his fraud, Mary Washington Hospital officials ordered a check of their radiation-producing equipment and an inspection of the architectural drawings that Fenton had reviewed.
The Fredericksburg hospital was one of Fentonâ€™s biggest customers. He worked for the hospital for at least 10 years, said Marie Fredrick, vice president for properties and ambulatory services.
The checks showed that the hospitalâ€™s equipment was working properly and that no patient or worker was harmed, Fredrick said.
The hospital now does background checks on the physicists it hires, she said.
The Health Department also changed its policies after learning about Fenton and now does background checks.
Physicists who want to be on the state-approved contractor list must submit copies of their transcripts directly from their universities. The state also independently checks professional certifications from accrediting organizations.
Asked why the state didnâ€™t change its system earlier, in 2002, after physicist Perry Beale was revealed as a fraud, Les Foldesi, director of the Division of Radiological Health, said: â€śI guess we thought or hoped it was an isolated incident. Iâ€™ve been doing this since 1985, and Perry Beale was the first one.â€ť
Foldesi also said that patients should not worry that imaging tests they had were inaccurate. If an Xâ€“ray machine is producing too much radiation, the technician will know im mediately, he said, because the images will be dark and unusable.
But John L. Brownlee, the federal prosecutor, said Fentonâ€™s deceit created the â€śconditions for harm,â€ť since he did not have the academic training that the system demands.
â€śWhen a woman goes in to get a mammogram, sheâ€™s hoping and praying that the tests will be accurate,â€ť he said. â€śThatâ€™s why the FDA wants people who have the training and edu cation and experience to do this test.â€ť
Jim Hall: 540/374-5433
|Norman Fenton was the preferred health physicist in the Fredericksburg area. The following is a list of his local clients:
Mary Washington Hospital, Fredericksburg
Pratt Medical Center, Fredericksburg
Culpeper Regional Hospital
Fauquier Hospital, Warrenton
Potomac Hospital, Woodbridge
Imaging Center for Women, Fredericksburg
Virginia Cardiovascular Consultants, Fredericksburg
Dominion Medical Center, Colonial Beach
Medical Imaging of Fredericksburg
Center for Orthopedics, Fredericksburg
Virginia Internal Medicine Associates, Bowling Green
Dr. Kurt Larson, Fredericksburg
Fredericksburg Ambulatory Surgery Center
Wilderness Medical Center, Locust Grove
Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center
Central Virginia Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, Fredericksburg
Virginia Orthopedic Center, Culpeper
Diabetes & Thyroid Associates, Fredericksburg
Dr. S. Rai, Stafford
King George Family Medicine
Dr. John Moss, FredericksburgSource: U.S. District Court records