GAINESVILLE, Ga. - We hear a lot of complaints from viewers about mold in their home, or in their office, or perhaps in their child's school; a lot of worried people who might go online and find someone like Michael Pugliese.
The FOX 5 I-Team obtained an email confirming the Georgia Composite Medical Board has an "active investigation" into the Gainesville man and his company, the National Treatment Centers for Environmental Disease in Alpharetta.
Pugliese calls himself a "world class environmentalist" and homeopathic provider. He's been behind a string of companies that offered to test people for mold or treat them for the effects of toxic mold exposure.
He's not a licensed doctor in Georgia or anywhere else. Yet several former employees and patients said he insisted on calling himself doctor, something he and his attorney deny.
Many of those upset patients and former employees complained to state inspectors that Pugliese is actually in the business of taking advantage of desperate people, patients who flew to Atlanta from across the country willing to pay $3300 up front for treatment.
According to the National Treatment Centers website, patients will be helped by "Our world class medical team... of MD's, Doctors of Internal Medicine, Homeopathic and Naturopathic physicians, Doctors of Oriental Medicine, Acupuncturists Neuropsychologists, and Neurotoxicologists."
So the FOX 5 I-Team asked for all the names of those "world class medical team" members. Pugliese did not provide them.
"They just didn't get their money's worth," former NTCED office manager Melissa Borchers told us.
According to her complaint to the Georgia Composite Medical Board and state regulators who license clinics, sick patients arrived expecting to see that "world class medical team," only to wind up treated largely by a sole physician's assistant.
"The patients that come there are sick or they wouldn't spend the money," Borchers recalled. "They need answers."
Melissa's complaint says non-doctor Pugliese even directed the medical care. His attorney says it was that physician's assistant who made the medical decisions.
Vonda Richardson was another former Pugliese employee.
"It just didn't add up to me," she told us.
According to a lawsuit filed in December by one upset patient, Pugliese "is nothing but a scam artist who uses false and fraudulent statements to bilk suffering consumers out of their money."
Pugliese's attorney said his client is "not by any stretch of imagination a scam artist."
"How many times did you get calls from people saying this is not working. I'm mad at you. This is a ripoff?" we asked the two former employees.
"A lot," both women insisted. "A lot."
Patients like Dawn Creci and Sherri Higgins.
"We were going to be healed and when we got there it was not anything like we expected," said Dawn.
An extended family of seven flew from Arizona to Atlanta. Sick... scared... desperate. Dawn told us she's out at least $20,000.
That includes extra money for special minerals Michael Pugliese required patients take to follow his protocol for healing, like specially-formulated nasal spray. The protocols they were given called for "bowel evacuation"... eating "white rice and canned chicken white meat for 3 days"... and avoiding all dairy... all sugar.. all gluten grains... all beans.
"You felt like vomiting all the time," remembered former patient Sherri Higgins. "When you called to tell them that, they would say well, just stay to it. It's just detoxing."
And they said they couldn't get anyone to tell them what exactly was in all those specially prepared minerals from Pugliese.
"We have no idea now what we've ingested," Sherri complained. "My husband's lungs are worse than ever.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated Pugliese's protocol and reported it has "no scientific evidence of being beneficial" and has "the potential to cause harm."
The FOX 5 I-Team tried speaking to Pugliese outside his Gainesville office.
"We've had all these patients call us and say they're in worst shape, they feel worse after they've taken your protocol and they feel poorer."
"You have no idea if these people are actual patients or not," Pugliese replied. "We got bizarre calls from a lot of people. Let's set an appointment time and come back."
"I need to ask you some questions in case you don't keep your appointment because that happens to me sometimes. Mr. Pugliese."
"I will keep my appointment," Pugliese vowed.
He did not.
"You mess with people's lives," said former employee Vonda Richardson who said she was laid off only weeks after being hired. "Not just our lives. You mess with these people that you're not telling them the truth."
And what about all those Pugliese patients? Are they worried they'll never get better... even after spending so much money with him?
"Absolutely," replied Sherri Higgins. "We keep saying what do we do? What are we going to do?"