News Column

Plastic surgeon Meilman, former best friend locked in vicious court battle

August 31, 2014

By Dan Herbeck, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Aug. 31--Jeffrey Meilman and Davis Tiburzi used to be the best of friends.

Meilman, a successful plastic surgeon, and Tiburzi, a prominent developer, used to enjoy good times together playing golf, dining in restaurants or just sitting and swapping stories in Meilman's medical office.

But something destroyed their 20-year friendship. Money. Specifically, $1.2 million in loans that Meilman said he gave Tiburzi. Now they are bitter enemies, locked in a battle of lawsuits, accusations and counteraccusations.

"There's a saying in Latin that says friends make the worst enemies," said Steven M. Cohen, an attorney for Tiburzi. "These two men were the best of friends. They know a lot about each other."

The story of their shattered friendship is told in court papers, documents that spew one nasty allegation after another.

Meilman asserts in his lawsuit filed in January that Tiburzi has refused to pay back even one dollar of the $1.2 million that he loaned the developer in various installments over a decade.

Tiburzi responds that Meilman has greatly exaggerated the amount of money he owes the doctor, some of which he said he used to finance various business deals they had together.

But in his counterclaim, Tiburzi also accuses the plastic surgeon of improprieties, including the improper handling of drugs in his medical office, inappropriate breast enhancement surgeries for an alleged girlfriend, and using money donated to the Hope for Tomorrow Foundation for personal expenses such as dinners and pleasure trips. The foundation is a charity that depends on donations to send Meilman and other doctors to countries all over the world, where they provide free medical services to people in need.

Each man claims the other is making up stories to cover his own improper conduct.

Meilman and his attorney, Thomas H. Burton, claim Tiburzi took advantage of their friendship by convincing him -- on at least two dozen occasions dating to 2003 -- to lend him money in order to bail Tiburzi out of financial troubles.

His court papers contain purported copies of numerous checks and loan agreements between the two men. The documents show Meilman loaned more than $1.2 million to Tiburzi, members of Tiburzi's family and Tiburzi-run businesses. According to Meilman, Tiburzi promised to pay him 10 percent interest, but has never paid back any part of the loans.

"I was happy to help a friend ... I honestly thought we were really good friends," Meilman, 71, said in a Buffalo News interview. "In retrospect, I see things slightly differently."

Tiburzi, 63, insisted in a News interview that many of the records Meilman submitted in his court papers were inaccurate, and in some cases, fraudulent. Tiburzi said much of the money Meilman gave him was for various business ventures that the two men worked on together.

"We were friends. Money and obligations went back and forth, from me to him and back," Tiburzi said in the interview. "The amount of money he has listed in the lawsuit is ridiculous."

Tiburzi has failed to provide The News any records showing business agreements between him and Meilman, or any records showing money going from him to Meilman. He also has not provided any records backing his allegations that money was improperly spent by the Hope for Tomorrow foundation.

In many cases, business dealings between the two men were not documented with written records, Tiburzi and his attorney said.

"Meilman wanted it that way," said Cohen, Tiburzi's attorney.

Meilman denied the allegation.

Tiburzi did, however, provide The News with documents showing that Meilman was disciplined by New York State in 2010 for failing to maintain proper records for dispensing drugs to his patients. State officials verified Tiburzi's claims about the sanctions against Meilman.

Meilman made a huge error in judgment by suing Tiburzi and beginning a mud-slinging campaign between two friends, Cohen said, adding that the proceedings will get even uglier if the case goes to trial.

Burton responded that Meilman only filed his lawsuit as a last resort after realizing that Tiburzi had taken advantage of their friendship.

A friendship ruined

Meilman lives in Amherst and runs an Amherst medical office that specializes in plastic surgery. An Air Force veteran who served as a military surgeon in the Vietnam War, Meilman is widely known in the local medical community for his charitable activities. Through his foundation, he has led teams of doctors who performed free surgeries on dozens of missions to poor communities all over the world.

Tiburzi, of Clarence, is a developer of homes and business properties in Amherst and other communities. He is best known for being a member of the development team that tore down the Crystal Beach amusement park in Fort Erie, Ont., and built dozens of luxury waterfront homes on the property. He is also an inventor and toy designer.

Both men said they were very close friends -- almost like brothers, in Tiburzi's words -- for about 20 years, until Meilman filed his lawsuit in State Supreme Court in January.

Friends of the two men have been taken aback by the harsh accusations being thrown back and forth.

"I feel bad about it. It's sad," said Buffalo businessman Carl P. Paladino, who said he knows both men through their work with the foundation. "I'm not taking sides ... I've seen this kind of thing in its worst case, and in its most pathetic case. I hate to see when you had two friends who worked so well together."

The most recent public allegations were filed in late April, when Tiburzi filed a counterclaim against Meilman.

The following allegations were made by Tiburzi in 30 pages of court papers:

-- Meilman was sanctioned by New York State health officials and fined $5,000 in March 2010 for failing to maintain required records on the dispensing of controlled substances between May 2004 and March 2007.

-- To protect his assets, Meilman set up a trust fund administrated by a relative. Meilman had earnings that he "wished to protect and keep 'under the radar.'" Meilman's efforts to set aside a "nest egg" of funds that no one else could touch "forms the backdrop for many" of Meilman's claims against Tiburzi.

-- The married Meilman had an "intimate relationship" with a woman and Meilman "performed a series of surgeries enlarging her bust size from an A cup to a 44 KKK." Tiburzi said he warned Meilman that these surgeries could cause back problems for the woman and result in a malpractice lawsuit, sanctions by the state Health Department or censure by plastic surgery professional groups. Tiburzi included several photographs of the woman in his court papers, but did not identify her by name.

-- When Meilman imported "enormous" breast implants from a country not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Tiburzi spoke with Meilman about "the potential for disastrous consequences for disfiguring" the woman. Tiburzi said both Meilman and his mistress became angry with him for his persistence on the matter.

-- Meilman's mistress "openly threatened" at one point that if Tiburzi did not "back off" from interfering with her relationship with Meilman, "she would destroy Davis Tiburzi's life."

-- Tiburzi claims that Meilman used foundation funds to take the woman on trips with him, a claim that Meilman denies.

-- "Tiburzi expressed outrage at a Haiti trip in which" Meilman "performed only a fraction of the surgeries" he had promised, and then traveled to another Caribbean Island for a vacation.

-- Tiburzi alleged that Meilman's mistress "encouraged these abuses of the Foundation," and when he objected as a board member, he received "more intense...threats" from Meilman's alleged mistress.

-- Tiburzi said he confronted Meilman about "irregularities" on some of the foundation's trips. He said he told Meilman and his alleged mistress that "if the accounting issues were not resolved, and the policies of the Foundation" were not changed to prevent future abuses, he had a duty to bring the issues to the attention of other board members.

In court papers, Tiburzi said Meilman begged him to keep the issues to himself, promised to investigate the alleged irregularities, and did investigate some of them. Tiburzi alleged that Meilman and his alleged mistress, "in anticipation of the possibility that Davis Tiburzi would follow through on his promise to advise the board of the Foundation's irregularities, set out to discredit Davis Tiburzi to neutralize any statements he might make." Tiburzi said Meilman then removed Tiburzi from the foundation's board.

Meilman responds

In an interview with his attorney sitting by his side, Meilman responded to most of Tiburzi's allegations, denying them.

On the advice of his attorney, the surgeon refused to discuss any of Tiburzi's claims about the breast implants given to his alleged mistress, or any of the remarks or threats that Tiburzi attributed to her.

"Any of that, in our view, falls into the category of doctor-patient communication, and he's not going to discuss that," Burton said.

But Meilman did talk at length about his 2010 sanction by the state, his financial dealings with Tiburzi, and especially, his anger and outrage over Tiburzi's allegations about his charitable work with the Hope for Tomorrow Foundation. He said all of Tiburzi's claims about improper uses of foundation money are untrue.

"I have tapes, CDs and photographs showing the 20 years of work we've done for patients all over the world," Meilman said of his foundation. "It's all documented. When we go abroad, we do a lot of surgeries. We've helped burn victims. We've helped people who were horribly disfigured and could not get the medical help they needed. We sometimes brought people back to Buffalo to perform complicated surgeries, because the facilities and equipment we needed were not available in these other countries."

Meilman showed a News reporter picture books and videos of him and other Buffalo-area doctors helping disfigured individuals in Haiti, Jamaica, Russia, India, Poland, Cuba and other countries.

When they are not busy serving patients on their missions, some of the doctors and other volunteers do go out to dinner, socialize and enjoy some sightseeing, but the top priority of all the trips is helping patients, Meilman said.

He challenged Tiburzi to provide any documents showing the foundation misspent money.

"If Davis ever had complaints about anything we were doing, he never once mentioned them to me," Meilman said.

Meilman's statements on the foundation were backed by Dr. Hratch L. Karamanoukian, a vein treatment specialist from Amherst. Karamanoukian is a member of the foundation's board of directors. He said Tiburzi served on the board with him.

"I've been on seven or eight overseas missions with the foundation. Davis Tiburzi has never been on any of the missions that I've been on, or any missions that I am aware of," Karamanoukian told a reporter.

According to Karamanoukian, when he and other medical professionals go on the missions, they treat patients "10 to 15 hours a day."

"After that, I do go out to dinner and unwind a bit," Karamanoukian said. "I've never had the time to party, or to do any of the things that [Tiburzi] has insinuated. I was on the board with him for five or six years, and I never heard him bring up any of these issues."

Meilman also denied that he set up a "nest egg" trust fund to hide his financial holdings from others. But he acknowledged Tiburzi's claim that he was disciplined in 2010 by the state Health Department's Board for Professional Conduct.

In a consent agreement Meilman and state officials signed in March 2010, Meilman agreed to pay a $5,000 fine after being accused of professional misconduct. Meilman admitted that he violated state public health law by failing to provide proper records when dispensing drugs to his patients between May 2004 and March 2007.

Meilman said he also was disciplined in Florida, California and Hawaii -- where he has also practiced -- because of what happened in New York State.

"This strictly was a record-keeping issue," Meilman said. He said he and his employees never gave drugs to anyone who did not need them for legitimate medical reasons.

The case is in early pretrial stages. It may take months or even years to come to trial, court officials said.

email: dherbeck@buffnews,com

___

(c)2014 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

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