The Navy recruiter who recommended a commission for Dr. Donal M. Billig, a heart surgeon charged with the deaths of five patients at Bethesda Naval Hospital, has been referred for court-martial on charges of perjury, dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer, a Navy spokesman said yesterday.
Lt. Cmdr. Jerry Penn, a former recruiter from Pittsburgh, is expected to face a general court-martial in November, on a recommendation that followed an internal investigation, according to Navy spokesman Lt. Stephen Pietropaoli.
The Navy charges Penn with lying to a formal board of investigation that began investigating the recruitment, hiring and appointment of Billig, who worked at Bethesda from January 1983 through November 1984.
Specifically, Penn is charged with falsely testifying that he supplied the Navy with documentation from Monmouth Medical Center in New Jersey, a hospital that Billig was asked to leave when questions arose about his competence.
Also, the Navy charges that Penn failed to inform another recruiter, Capt. Reginald E. Newman, that Billig had applied for an Air Force commission and was "found not to be physically qualified pending completion of an ophthalmology examination," Pietropaoli said.
A subsequent exam by the Navy, during its investigation of Billig, revealed the surgeon was legally blind in his right eye. As a result of that investigation, Billig, 54, was charged with the patient deaths. Eight naval officers received disciplinary sanctions and Penn and Newman were investigated for their role in the hiring.
No decision has been made about Newman, although a Navy investigation was recently completed, a spokesman said yesterday.
Billig, the former head of cardiothoracic surgery at Bethesda, was charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in June and another one in October during another court investigation of his practices. He also is charged with dereliction of duty in connection with 24 operations that the Navy alleges he performed without proper supervision.
Documents obtained by The Washington Post showed that Penn had recommended Billig for service in August 1982 despite written allegations from administrators at Monmouth Medical Center in New Jersey questioning his competence. Penn, according to Navy documents, said Monmouth's concerns stemmed from "acrimony and professional jealousy."
Navy sources have said that Billig ncrease its recruitments and Bethesda Naval Hospital was under pressure to secure another senior heart and chest surgeon.