Defense lawyers spent hours Thursday trying to poke holes in the credibility of the prosecution’s star witness in the federal fraud trial of Dr. Joel Sabean, a prominent dermatologist being tried in U.S. District Court in Portland on tax evasion and other charges.

The witness is a family member who alleges the doctor has sexually abused her for years and, in the past decade, transferred millions of dollars to her to both keep her quiet about the abuse and encourage her to continue exchanging sexually explicit emails and photographs.

Sabean, 69, who has run one of southern Maine’s most successful dermatology practices since the late 1970s, is charged with tax evasion, illegally distributing controlled substances by writing prescriptions for the family member, who was not his patient; and health care fraud for allegedly writing prescriptions in his wife’s name that were used by the relative. The fraud charge stems from an insurance company paying part of the cost of the prescriptions because Sabean’s wife is covered by the doctor’s health insurance, but the relative who received the medications is not.

Sabean, prosecutors allege, transferred about $2.3 million to the relative over five years and then claimed on his tax return that the money was used to cover health care expenses for the relative, allowing him to avoid paying nearly $900,000 in taxes. The relative has claimed Sabean, in addition to sexually abusing her since she was 12 or 13, was in on the scheme to claim the money went toward health care costs.

Sabean has not been charged with sexual abuse. The Portland Press Herald does not name victims of alleged sex abuse without their consent.

Earlier in the trial, prosecutors said Sabean sent the woman money, sometimes thousands of dollars a day, to buy her silence. He then started making up medical problems the woman had, to justify the transfers of money. Prosecutors alleged that Sabean told his wife, financial consultants and others in his medical practice that in one year, the woman had a drug-resistant infection, gall and kidney stones surgically removed, toes amputated and re-attached and a kidney transplant. She later claimed to have received a heart transplant.

Defense lawyers are portraying the woman as a liar and they contend that Sabean never knew she was faking her illnesses and preparing false bills for health care.

Within minutes of starting her testimony this week, the woman admitted she’s “had a problem with lying my whole life.”

In another potential hit on her credibility, she has testified in a prison jumpsuit because she’s currently serving a sentence in Florida for violating probation after being convicted of shoplifting. She said Thursday the probation violation was because she falsified records to show she had performed community service she hadn’t done.

Thursday, the woman repeatedly said she didn’t recall making certain statements, participating in some conversations or writing emails sent from her own email account.

Thimi Mina, Sabean’s chief defense counsel, asked the woman about emails she sent Sabean in which she apologized for lying about her medical problems in 2010, when he apparently cut off payments to her for several months. She said the email was intended for Sabean to share with his wife so he could claim he had challenged the relative about the payments.

The woman on Wednesday claimed to have gotten help from Sabean preparing fake medical bills that he could then give to his accountants. One was from a Mount Sinai Hospital in Florida about eight years ago. On Thursday, Mina said the same hospital, a few weeks before the date on the fake bill, had sent a letter to a Cumberland County court in Maine claiming the woman was too ill to stand trial on a criminal charge she faced. The nature of the charge were not available. The woman, who previously testified that she has had no serious medical issues in recent years, said she didn’t remember the letter, the charge or the ultimate dismissal of the case.

Mina also said that, in connection with that case, she spoke to Portland police about trying to avoid jail time. Her response was typical of many of her replies to Mina’s allegations.

“I don’t remember giving a statement,” she said. “I probably did.”

The woman’s testimony is expected to conclude Friday. At the end of Thursday’s session, prosecutors told U.S. District Court Judge George Z. Singal that the trial was largely on track to be finished by mid-November, although Mina said he hoped it would wrap up next week.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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