Source: Medscape

America’s Frontline Doctors is suing one of its founders in a battle for control over the controversial group, which gained national notoriety for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 treatments and vaccines during the pandemic.

The organization and its current board chairman have sued Simone Gold, MD, alleging that she misused the nonprofit organization’s funds to buy a $3.6 million Florida mansion, purchase a Mercedes-Benz and other luxury vehicles, and take trips on private planes.

The lawsuit, filed November 4 in federal court, comes just months after Gold was released from prison for her role in the January 6 US Capitol insurrection. Gold pleaded guilty to trespassing in the Capitol and was sentenced to 60 days in federal prison.

The California physician helped found America’s Frontline Doctors, a so-called “medical freedom” group that has ties to right-wing groups, including the Tea Party Patriots.

The group and the board chairman, Joseph Gilbert, claim that after her release from prison, Gold attempted to reassert control of the group, take over its website, and fraudulently represent herself as its director, according to the complaint. The complaint referred to Gold as a “rogue founder,” alleging that she spent almost $50,000 monthly on personal expenses using the organization’s credit cards.

Gold resigned from the group’s board in February ― before she pled guilty ― so that she could pursue her goal of opening health and wellness centers nationwide, according to the complaint. At that time, the board voted Gilbert to be its chairman and agreed to have Gilbert negotiate an agreement for Gold to serve as a consultant. Gold sought a “signing bonus” of $1.5 million, along with $50,000 to be paid monthly as a consulting fee, according to the complaint.

Gold, Gilbert, and Gilbert’s attorneys did not respond requests for comment.

In a press release posted on November 8 on the group’s website, Gold declined further comment but characterized the legal complaint as “founded on several demonstrably false claims” and indicated that it was “filed by a disgruntled Board member.”

Also on November 8, a federal judge denied the group’s request for an injunction that would have prevented Gold “from gaining access and use of charitable funds for her own personal benefit and from trying to illegally and fraudulently wrest control away from AFLDS’ rightful Board of Directors.”

The day before the lawsuit was filed, Gold posted a press release on the group’s website that “reaffirmed” her leadership of the organization after she left federal prison. In the release, Gold accused Gilbert of the same misdeeds she is now accused of.

“It is with great sadness that I must announce that Mr. Gilbert has repeatedly acted unethically, exhibiting a clear pattern of inappropriate and damaging behavior…including numerous instances of self-dealing and threats made to employees of financial retaliation and termination if they failed to comply with his demands,” the press release stated.

The lawsuit paints a picture of Gold swiftly moving to seize control of the group’s operations and finances between mid-October and early November. Gold demanded via letter that each of the group’s board members immediately resign or face litigation and public exposure. She recused Gilbert from his position on the board, the complaint alleges. She also allegedly suspended the group’s in-house attorney and directed employees to lock other employees out of the group’s email, website, and financial systems, according to the complaint.

Gilbert, who is an attorney and former boxer, has faced his own, unrelated legal troubles. In September, a Nevada judge sanctioned him for a “frivolous lawsuit” in which he claimed he had defeated Joe Lombardo, Clark County sheriff, for the Republican nomination for Nevada’s governor. Gilbert was ordered to pay Lombardo’s attorney fees. According to a report in the Reno Gazette Journal, Gilbert spent almost $200,000 on a recount that proved he did indeed lose the election.

Group Spreads Misinformation During Pandemic

With Gold as its public face, America’s Frontline Doctors decried pandemic lockdowns, spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, and promoted unproven and dangerous COVID-19 remedies, including hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

Early in the pandemic, the group’s white-coated members stood in front of the US Supreme Court to praise hydroxychloroquine and criticize mask-wearing. A video of the event went viral, vaulting Gold into conservative media circles. The group solicited donations and took in large sums of money by referring people to a telemedicine site that prescribed the off-label use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

The group’s activities were considered so egregious that last October, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis officially requested that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate the organization’s practices.

In a letter to the FTC’s chair, the committee wrote that America’s Frontline Doctors has “profited by facilitating paid consultations and off-label prescriptions for purported coronavirus treatments that the companies promote online. AFLDS’s website refers patients to [a website] which provides consultations with ‘AFLDS-trained physicians’ willing to prescribe hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, and other unproven treatments.”

The unwarranted hype over hydroxychloroquine in particular went beyond potentially causing people to forgo proven treatments or preventive measures, including vaccination and mask-wearing. It caused alarming shortages of the antimalarial medicine, used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), according to a 2020 international survey of lupus clinics.

Kevin Byram, MD, a rheumatologist with the University of Vanderbilt Medical Center, recalled that a number of his lupus and RA patients were unable to fill their hydroxychloroquine prescriptions. Some “had to ration their medicines, while their physicians spent time and effort tracking down pharmacies that still stocked the medication for patients with an indication for it,” he said.

As the struggle for power over America’s Frontline Doctors continues, the group’s future remains unclear.

Employee Amanda Johnston noted in a November 8 affidavit: “Overall, the last week has been complete insanity with a back and forth of employees within the organization calling meetings and private chats. The whole organization is suffering right now as a result from multiple measures taken to try to ‘shut down’ different aspects of the company.”

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