Justice Department looks into White House-linked doctor touting disputed remedy

Federal prosecutors are examining the communications of a New York family doctor whose work has been discussed on Fox News and who has been in touch with the White House to tout an anti-malarial as a treatment for the novel coronavirus, according to people contacted as part of the inquiry.

The examination of Vladimir “Zev” Zelenko’s records began when an associate, conservative commentator Jerome Corsi, accidentally sent an email intended for Zelenko to another “Z” name in his address book – federal prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, who as a member of special counsel Robert Mueller III’s team had spent months scrutinizing Corsi’s activities during the 2016 presidential election.

During episodes of his daily podcast this week and in a YouTube video he posted late Thursday in response to questions from The Washington Post, Corsi said that Zelinsky responded to the unexpected email by reaching out to Corsi’s lawyer and requesting all of Corsi’s communications with Zelenko.

Corsi said he and Zelenko are collaborating on a website designed to connect people with doctors. They have acted lawfully, Corsi added, but he plans to cooperate with the request and has handed over his communications.

Zelinsky is tasked now with investigating coronavirus-related crimes in the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office, as part of a directive from U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr to prioritize such cases. The department already has charged a medley of fraudsters for peddling fake cures, selling personal protective equipment they didn’t actually have or running more complicated Medicare reimbursement schemes, and officials say tips are coming in droves.

Gregory Rigano, a lawyer who said he is working with Zelenko, said in a brief telephone conversation Thursday night that they had not been contacted by federal prosecutors, and he was not aware of any possible law enforcement interest in Zelenko.

“It’s not something I’m familiar with,” Rigano said. “We’re just saving people’s lives that have coronavirus and getting rid of this virus from America as soon as possible.”

In his YouTube video, Corsi displayed the email he inadvertently sent to Zelinsky. In it, he wrote that Zelenko had “an FDA approved randomized test of HCQ underway” – a reference to hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, President Donald Trump has enthusiastically promoted the drug as a potential treatment for patients infected with covid-19, the lethal respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. Last week the Food and Drug Administration, citing reports of “serious heart rhythm problems” associated with hydroxychloroquine, warned doctors against its use outside of a hospital or clinical trial.

By Corsi’s account, Zelinsky went to a government website that lists approved clinical trials and found no reference to Zelenko.

After learning of the federal prosecutor’s interest, Corsi said he asked Zelenko about whether he had an FDA-approved study – as Corsi said Zelenko had told another physician at a training event. Zelenko, Corsi said, then suggested his study was approved instead by an internal hospital panel.

“I pointed out to Zelenko, ‘But it’s not registered as an FDA test, and you can’t say it is,’ ” Corsi said Thursday on YouTube, adding he did not feel Zelenko was trying to defraud anyone, but rather did not understand what it meant to have an FDA-approved test.

“I did nothing wrong. Zelenko made a mistake. He’s got no case. And we’re following all the rules,” Corsi said. He said he had turned over to Zelinsky emails and text messages between himself and Zelenko, as well as copies of his podcast and marketing materials for the website – “everything he asked for.”

Corsi’s attorney, David Gray, confirmed his version of events.

It is unclear how seriously prosecutors are scrutinizing the matter; a Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. But even passing interest from federal authorities into efforts to promote the anti-malarial is likely to chafe the president and his allies, particularly given the involvement of a former member of Mueller’s team.

“I’m very concerned about the government intrusion here on our freedoms,” Corsi said on his podcast. “I see the government demonizing a medicine . . . this hydroxychloroquine, that’s been around for 70 years, and is fully FDA approved for various illness.”

Trump spent weeks promoting the anti-malarial during his daily televised briefings, calling it at one point a “game-changer” that could help the nation quickly overcome the coronavirus.

His comments echoed frequent segments on Fox News, some of which featured discussions of Zelenko’s work. Zelenko has said he successfully treated hundreds of suspected covid-19 patients with what he called a cocktail of hydroxychloroquine, the antibiotic azithromycin and zinc sulfate.

Experts, including Trump’s leading infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci, have repeatedly cautioned that while there is some anecdotal evidence the drug shows promise, its efficacy must be validated through controlled scientific studies.

Zelenko consults frequently with some of Trump’s closest allies. Trump aides say he has been in contact with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and other officials. In a recent interview, Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said he and Zelenko speak frequently – often more than once a day.

“He’s a very smart doctor,” Giuliani said. “I’ve seen an analysis of Dr. Zelenko’s patient list. There are thousands of people who have been helped by it.”

Corsi said he was referred to Zelenko by another doctor also interested in covid-19 and hosted Zelenko for the first time on his podcast earlier this month.

Corsi’s website, speakwithanmd.com, offers people the opportunity to schedule a virtual appointment with a doctor, by clicking on a button and inputting their name and address. It advertises a “low consult fee” of $59.95, as well as “Prescriptions Delivered Right to Your Door, Same Day!” through a partner.

The site claims to be linked with more than 625 health-care providers, spanning all 50 states. In a “Frequently Asked Questions” section, it says it is “designed to see and treat non-emergency type consultations,” though it lists “COVID-19” as one of many health problems its doctors can examine, along with constipation, allergies and the common cold.

On his website, Corsi describes Zelenko as an unpaid “medical adviser.”

Zelenko was a guest on Corsi’s podcast Sunday and explained he is working with two German scientists and will soon be publishing data from his use of hydroxychloroquine with his patients.

He accused Fauci and other government scientists of opposing use of the drug for political and financial reasons. “History will prove me right,” Zelenko said on Corsi’s podcast. “The difference between me and Dr. Fauci is only about 100,000 dead people.”

Corsi is best known for his promotion of the false theory that former president Barack Obama was not born in the United States, a topic over which he bonded with Trump before the celebrity mogul ran for president.

Corsi was in close contact with Trump associate Roger Stone during the 2016 campaign and the two men communicated frequently about WikiLeaks, as the anti-secrecy group published Democratic Party emails that U.S. officials say were stolen and provided to the group by Russian intelligence.

Corsi has said he was interviewed extensively about Stone by Zelinsky and other Mueller prosecutors, who at one point drafted a plea agreement under which Corsi would have agreed that he had lied in an initial interview about WikiLeaks.

Corsi ultimately refused to plead guilty, and he was not charged with a crime.

Stone was convicted of lying to Congress, obstruction of an official proceeding and witness tampering and sentenced to three years and four months in prison. He is appealing. Zelinsky was notably among a group of career prosecutors who quit that case after Barr, the attorney general, intervened to reduce the recommendation he and other prosecutors gave for Stone’s penalty.

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