Voss: Where Were The Veterinary Boards In The Grasso Case? - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Voss: Where Were The Veterinary Boards In The Grasso Case?

There's a lot to be mad about when reading prosecutors' pre-sentencing reports (PSRs) in the ongoing 2020 federal doping case.

For defendants who have entered guilty pleas and avoided trial, as most of them have to this point, I've learned the government's PSRs are among the most interesting documents in the whole file. In lieu of having to present evidence against the defendant, it's the prosecution's last opportunity to get a few shots in as they advocate for their preferred prison sentence. Sometimes, as they did in the case of Jorge Navarro, they'll whip out a few particularly stomach-churning details from their wire taps and intercepted text messages when they can show how little remorse the defendant had for their actions in the moment.

Read our coverage of the prosecutors' PSR on Navarro from December 2021 here.

This was certainly the case with Dr. Louis Grasso, one of the veterinarians indicted alongside a number of harness horsemen with similar drug adulteration and misbranding charges to the vets and trainers in the Navarro indictment.

Texts between Grasso and unidentified horsemen reveal that he's well aware that he had a stormy persona in the racing world.

In a text message to an unidentified person, Grasso wrote he has “ALWAYS been the bad guy so that's [his] reputation” that he “plays into it because it keeps the persona where [he] likes it!!!” and “all it does is make [his] business even larger [because] people seem to like the bad guy LOL LOL.”

In an intercepted communication with co-defendant and horse trainer Thomas Guido III, Grasso discussed the death of an unidentified horse of Guido's, which Grasso attributed to an injection of “pure N-butyl alcohol.” It's not clear whether Guido got the N-butyl alcohol from Grasso or what he thought he was using it for.

“Guarantee [N-butyl alcohol is] what killed him … guarantee you didn't shake it up enough, you grabbed too much N-butyl alcohol pure and you fucking killed him. I've seen that happen twenty times,” Grasso said, according to the PSR.

Read our coverage of the Grasso PSR here.

So, he considered himself a villain who clearly knew the risks of allowing or encouraging laypeople to inject substances of questionable origin but sold and distributed those things to them anyway, despite having trained as a veterinarian.

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I can be disgusted. Clean trainers and honest veterinarians reading how Grasso bragged about lying to racing commissions on two occasions to get trainers out of valid post-race positive tests can be repulsed. We can wish the very worst for him, not that he's likely to lose sleep over it.

But one particular group of people reading his words should be embarrassed – state veterinary boards.

At the time he was arrested in 2020, Grasso still held an active veterinary license. In fact, that's the basis of some of his behavior that triggered the federal charges. Prosecutors say Grasso allowed co-defendant Donato Poliseno to use his veterinary license number to purchase drugs that Poliseno then sold – mostly, it seems, to laypeople. (Poliseno was neither a doctor nor a pharmacist.)

The thing is, Grasso built his self-described bad boy reputation over the course of years. There was the 1992 incident in which he was discovered distributing anabolic steroids to bodybuilders and arrested on federal charges. Then in 2000 he was arrested again for distributing controlled substances in Delaware, despite having no license to practice there. He was found with a variety of drugs and plastic baggies filled with pills in his car after fleeing to evade the police officers who'd showed up to arrest him.

In that case, the Delaware Board of Professional Regulation issued a warning to him, making clear that he wasn't licensed to distribute drugs there, and he continued on with his behavior anyway.

In both those cases, Grasso managed to work deals for himself lessening the charges he pleaded guilty to and their associated penalties. He lost his DEA license after the second case, which reduced his ability to prescribe certain types of medication. And still, even at this very moment, Louis A Grasso is listed in the license verification system with the New York Office of the Professions as having a registered license to practice veterinary medicine. He also has an active veterinary license in New Jersey, where it had previously been suspended for five years following the 1992 incident with the anabolic steroids.

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(I should say that to their credit, New York Gaming Commission officials revoked Grasso's license years ago after they found out he was violating pre-race drug guidelines and giving out blank scratch forms. The case in Delaware was also tied in with racing authorities, who alerted law enforcement that he was treating racehorses. So in this situation at least, it seems state racing authorities were on top of a situation that state veterinary boards were willing to ignore.)

I wrote about what is, quite frankly, the total ineptitude of state veterinary boards back in 2018.

You can read that piece here.

I learned at the time that there are several problems with this regulatory system. Vet boards are almost exclusively made up of current and former veterinarians who don't like to be seen as lashing out against one of their own. Most of them are also unwilling to take any action against a licensee at the center of a criminal case until after that case has completely reached a conclusion – which, since Grasso hasn't been sentenced yet, is probably why his licenses still appear valid. After that conclusion is reached, some of them are legally required to conduct their own “investigations,” even if that means just reviewing another agency's legwork.

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The boards also may be hogtied by their own laws; some may not have catch-all regulations allowing them to immediately suspend or revoke someone's license if they're arrested or enter into plea agreements on charges related to their professional activities.

Perhaps most disturbingly, state vet boards aren't typically putting a lot of effort into investigation and enforcement; they wait to get complaints from members of the public or law enforcement and use those as the basis to start an investigation on someone. One state spokeswoman even told me they sometimes find out about a potential violation of veterinary practice law from members of the media asking them questions, which I find astounding. I like to think I'm a good reporter, but I should not be one of the public's primary lines of defense for an entire profession; by the time I'm looking for a comment, damage has already been done to someone, somewhere.

But in Grasso's case, the boards did know he was a bad actor. In 2012, an investigation from the New York Times took a look at Grasso, who by then had had his racing veterinary license revoked. The story revealed that he was working away at training centers in New York, and was the veterinarian for a barn that had five positives for oxymetazoline, a component of the human nasal spray Afrin. The trainer said Grasso had been putting it in a nebulizer treatment he gave to most horses in the barn. Oxymetazoline is banned by FEI and is not approved by the FDA for use in animals, though Grasso claimed its use was common in racehorses at the time.

The Times contacted the New York Education Department's Office of Professional Discipline, which oversees its vet board and was told in part: “We have recently taken affirmative steps to have the Racing and Wagering Board share data following their review of racetrack veterinary medicine practices.”

This, I infer, was sort of a non-responsive suggestion that the vet board can't possibly know what a racing veterinarian could be doing wrong unless the racing commission tells them. But of course, Grasso had a history of federal charges that should have told the story well enough. Did the Delaware case really not violate New York's practice law? Did his provision of veterinary paperwork (scratch forms) to non-vets really cross no lines? What about his distribution of controlled drugs? And if none of that behavior was illegal under the vet board's regulations – shouldn't they change that?

That neither New York or New Jersey's state boards were willing to take a hard look at a repeat offender is appalling. The board members in both states carry a responsibility for the risks taken by horses subjected to his unethical and uncaring behavior for years up to his arrest. Think about how many horses that must have been.

Grasso did speak with the Times for its story saying, in part, “anything that goes wrong in harness racing they point to me” and accusing regulators of having a vendetta against him.

“Veterinarians out in the field are out there to help horses, not hurt them,” Grasso told the Times. “We are probably the only ones who have the horses' well-being in mind.”

Some more than others, it seems.

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