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Med schools scrutinized

PAINTSVILLE — The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure has opened an investigation into whether a Magoffin County man who promoted online and foreign medical schools has broken any state laws, C. Lloyd Vest, an attorney for the board, said yesterday.

Stephen J. Arnett, a former tombstone salesman and Free Will Baptist minister, promoted the St. Luke School of Medicine, an online school based in Liberia, from an address in Falcon, a small Magoffin County community, until 2003. He held key titles at the school, including vice president, and helped recruit students and place them in Kentucky hospitals and clinics.

Vest said board officials decided to launch a new investigation following a three-part series in the Herald-Leader and that the board would turn over any evidence to the appropriate authorities. The state attorney general's office also began investigating Arnett's involvement with the foreign school after a reporter called with questions.

The articles outlined how three men who have been convicted of practicing medicine without a license -- two in Kentucky and one in Rhode Island -- used their affiliation with St. Luke to treat patients or to study in clinical settings.

In the 1990s, Arnett owned and ran several Eastern Kentucky clinics.

State authorities investigated complaints against him, but he has never been criminally charged in connection with his medical activities.

Now a licensed massage therapist in both Kentucky and West Virginia, Arnett now maintains an office at 624 James S. Trimble Drive, inside the Paintsville Ramada Inn, called Health and Sports Wellness Center.

A company at the same address is listed in Kentucky Secretary of State records as ISO-Diagnostics Testing of Kentucky with Steve "Arnette" -- the last name spelled with an extra "e" -- as the organizer and director.

But Arnett is rarely seen in the office, hotel employees said.

"He comes in once or twice a month, checks his mail, pays his rent and you'll never see him till next time," Frankie Tackett, a desk clerk at the Ramada, said yesterday.

Filing cabinets and a lighted Tiffany-style lamp on a desk can be seen through the glass door to the office, located just off the hotel lobby. A seal on the door says the center is a member of the American Medical Massage Therapy Association. Services listed include massage therapy, neuromuscular therapy, cellulite treatment, naturopathic/homeopathic remedies and reflexology, as well as homeopathic and natural health products and nutritional consultation.

A Herald-Leader reporter visited the office three times this week and found the door locked.

Arnett could not be reached yesterday and has declined the Herald-Leader's repeated requests for interviews.

Arnett has been licensed as a naturopath in Idaho and Washington, D.C., and as an acupuncturist in West Virginia. Naturopathy involves using only natural elements or the body's own immune system to treat disease.

St. Luke President Jerroll Dolphin said in a recent interview that he stopped working with Arnett in 2003 and took away an honorary medical degree the school had given him because he thought Arnett was giving degrees without requiring proper course work.

Though some states have questioned the school's legitimacy, Dolphin said St. Luke offered an intensive curriculum and was not a diploma mill -- a school without accreditation that awards degrees for money and little work.

Larry Lammers worked in a chain of accident injury centers in Kentucky and served a jail sentence for practicing medicine without a license.

Court documents show that Arnett recruited him to St. Luke. Lammers completed course work, Dolphin said, but did not receive a medical degree because of his Kentucky conviction.

Arnett arranged for Andrew E. Michael to observe a heart specialist in Lexington. While in Kentucky, Michael was convicted in Nevada of practicing medicine without a license. He served a jail sentence and is back in custody on federal credit card charges. He never completed his studies at St. Luke, Dolphin said.

John E. Curran, who was sentenced in August to 12 1/2 years in federal prison in Rhode Island, said Arnett provided him with diplomas in medicine and naturopathy. Dolphin said Curran was never a legitimate St. Luke student.

There is no agency in Kentucky that oversees online degrees, nor does the state have an office that investigates people accused of practicing medicine without a license.

But Vest has said the board investigates any allegation it receives and that the attorney general's office can seek an injunction to stop the activity.

Fake degrees are illegal in Oregon, New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, North Dakota and Nevada, where they are misdemeanors and punishable by fines. However, violators rarely face prosecution.

State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, said that she will, for the fourth time, introduce a bill that would make the use of bogus credentials a Class D felony, punishable by a prison sentence of up to five years.