Middleman Who Lied About Being an Agent of a Foreign Official Sentenced to 3 ½ Years in Prison for Role in Foreign Bribery Scheme Involving $800 Million International Real Estate Deal

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The middleman in a foreign bribery scheme who falsely held himself out as an agent of a foreign official was sentenced today to 42 months in prison for each count, to run concurrently, for his role in a scheme to bribe a foreign official in the Middle East to land a real estate deal, and to defrauding his co-schemers.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim of the Southern District of New York and Assistant Director in Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. of the FBI’s New York Field Office made the announcement.

Malcom Harris, 53, of New York City, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos of the Southern District of New York.  Harris pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of money laundering on June 21.

According to admissions made in connection with Harris’s plea, Harris participated in a corrupt scheme to pay bribes to a foreign official in a country in the Middle East in order to facilitate the sale by South Korean construction company Keangnam Enterprises Co., Ltd., (Keangnam) of a commercial building known as Landmark 72 in Hanoi, Vietnam, to the Middle Eastern country’s sovereign wealth fund.  According to the indictment, the building sale was valued at $800 million, and purported bribe would total $2.5 million.

In connection with his guilty plea, Harris admitted that, from on or about March 2013 to on or about March 2015, he wrongfully obtained $500,000 from his co-defendants by falsely holding himself out as an agent of a foreign official in text messages and emails.  Harris admitted directing the $500,000 to be deposited into an account in the name of Muse Creative Consulting, but which Harris actually controlled.  Thereafter, Harris used the illegally obtained money to engage in transactions exceeding $10,000, he admitted.

Harris was charged in a December 2016 indictment along with codefendants Joo Hyun Bahn aka Dennis Bahn (Bahn) and Ban Ki Sang (Ban).  According to the indictment, during this time, Ban was a senior executive at Keangnam, and allegedly convinced Keangnam to hire his son Bahn, who worked as a broker at a commercial real estate firm in Manhattan, to secure an investor for Landmark 72.

Bahn and Ban are awaiting trial.  The charges and allegations contained in an indictment are only accusations.  The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The FBI’s International Corruption Squad in New York City investigated the case.  In 2015, the FBI formed International Corruption Squads across the country to address national and international implications of foreign corruption.  Trial Attorney Dennis R. Kihm of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel S. Noble of the Southern District of New York are prosecuting the case.  The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs also provided substantial assistance in this matter.

The Fraud Section is responsible for investigating and prosecuting all FCPA matters.  Additional information about the Justice Department’s FCPA enforcement efforts can be found at www.justice.gov/criminal-fraud/foreign-corrupt-practices-act.

Doctor Pleads Guilty to Health Care Fraud Conspiracy for Role in $19 Million Detroit Area Medicare Fraud Scheme

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A physician pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to commit health care fraud for his role in an approximately $19 million Medicare fraud scheme involving three Detroit area providers.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel L. Lemisch of the Eastern District of Michigan, Special Agent in Charge David P. Gelios of the FBI’s Detroit Division, Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh III of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (HHS-OIG) Chicago Regional Office and Special Agent in Charge Manny Muriel of Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) made the announcement.

Abdul Haq, 72, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud before U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood of the Eastern District of Michigan.  Sentencing has been scheduled for May 29, 2018 before Judge Hood.

As part of his guilty plea, Haq admitted that he conspired with the owner of the Tri-County Network, Mashiyat Rashid, and his co-defendants and others to prescribe medically unnecessary controlled substances, including Oxycodone, Hydrocodone and Opana, to Medicare beneficiaries, many of whom were addicted to narcotics.  He further admitted that in furtherance of the conspiracy, Rashid and others also directed physicians, including Haq and others, to require Medicare beneficiaries to undergo medically unnecessary facet joint injections if the beneficiary wished to obtain prescriptions for controlled substances.

In furtherance of the conspiracy, Haq and others referred Medicare beneficiaries to specific third party home health agencies, laboratories and diagnostic providers even though those referrals were medically unnecessary, he admitted.  Haq also served as the straw owner of various pain clinics owned and/or controlled by Rashid, and submitted false and fraudulent enrollment materials to Medicare that failed to disclose the ownership interest of Rashid, as it was illegal for Rashid – a non-physician – to own medical clinics under Michigan law.  In total, Haq admitted that he submitted or caused the submission of approximately $19,322,846.60 in false and fraudulent claims to Medicare.

Haq was charged along with Mashiyat Rashid, 37, of West Bloomfield, Michigan; Yasser Mozeb, 35, of Madison Heights, Michigan; Spilios Pappas, 61, of Monclova, Ohio; Joseph Betro, 57, of Novi, Michigan; Tariq Omar, 61, of West Bloomfield, Michigan; and Mohammed Zahoor, 51 of Novi, Michigan, in an indictment unsealed on July 6.  Rashid, Mozeb, Pappas, Betro, Omar and Zahoor are awaiting trial.

An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

This case was investigated by the FBI, HHS-OIG and IRS-CI.  Trial Attorney Jacob Foster of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section is prosecuting the case.

The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which is part of a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.  The Medicare Fraud Strike Force operates in nine locations nationwide.  Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force has charged over 3,500 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for over $12.5 billion.

Western New York Contractors and Two Owners to Pay More Than $3 Million to Settle False Claims Act Allegations

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Alden, New York-based contractors, Zoladz Construction Company Inc. (ZCCI), Arsenal Contracting LLC (Arsenal), and Alliance Contracting LLC (Alliance), along with two owners, John Zoladz of Darien, New York, and David Lyons of Grand Island, New York, have agreed to pay the United States more than $3 million to settle allegations that they violated the False Claims Act by improperly obtaining federal set-aside contracts designated for service-disabled veteran-owned (SDVO) small businesses, the Justice Department announced today.    

“Contracts are set aside for service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses so to afford veterans with service-connected disabilities the opportunity to participate in federal contracting and gain valuable experience to help them compete for future economic opportunities,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.  “Every time an ineligible contractor knowingly pursues and obtains such set-aside contracts, they are cheating American taxpayers at the expense of service-disabled veterans.”

To qualify as a SDVO small business, a service-disabled veteran must own and control the company.  The United States alleged that Zoladz recruited a service-disabled veteran to serve as a figurehead for Arsenal, which purported to be a legitimate SDVO small business but which was, in fact, managed and controlled by Zoladz and Lyons, neither of whom is a service-disabled veteran.  The United States alleged that Arsenal was a sham company that had scant employees of its own and instead relied on Alliance and ZCCI employees to function.  After receiving numerous SDVO small business contracts, Arsenal is alleged to have subcontracted nearly all of the work under the contracts to Alliance, which was owned by Zoladz and Lyons, and ZCCI, which was owned by Zoladz.  Neither Alliance nor ZCCI were eligible to participate in SDVO small business contracting programs.  Zoladz and Lyons are alleged to have carried out their scheme by, among other things, making or causing false statements to be made to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) regarding Arsenal’s eligibility to participate in the SDVO small business contracting program and the company’s compliance with SDVO small business requirements.

“Detecting and discontinuing fraud, waste, and abuse committed by those who do business with the government remains a core function performed in this Office,” said Acting U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy, Jr. for the Western District of New York. “That function, however, takes on additional significance when the target of the fraud is a program designed for the benefit of the heroes among us—our disabled veterans.  Although this investigation did not uncover sufficient evidence to establish criminal liability by these entities and individuals, the multi-million dollar civil judgment ensures that those involved pay a heavy price for their decision to divert to themselves resources intended for the benefit of those who have made supreme sacrifices on behalf of all.”

“This settlement demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, the Department of Justice, and other law enforcement agencies to aggressively pursue individuals and companies that misrepresent themselves as service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses and deny legitimate disabled veterans the opportunity to obtain VA set-aside contracts,” said Inspector General, Michael J. Missal of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General (OIG).  “The VA OIG will continue to work diligently to protect the integrity of this important program, which is designed to aid disabled veterans.  I also want to thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners in this effort.”

“The contracting companies and principals allowed greed to corrupt a federal process intended to benefit service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses,” said Special Agent in Charge Adam S. Cohen of FBI Buffalo Field Office. “The FBI and our partners will continue to identify and investigate companies and individuals who target these types of programs for personal gain.”

The settlement resolves a lawsuit filed under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, which permit private individuals to sue on behalf of the government for false claims and to share in any recovery.  The civil lawsuit was filed in the Western District of New York and is captioned United States ex rel. Western New York Foundation for Fair Contracting, Inc. v. Arsenal Contracting, LLC, et al., Case No. 11-CV-0821(S) (W.D.N.Y.).  As part of today’s resolution, the whistleblower will receive $450,000.

“This case is yet another example of the tremendous results achieved through the joint efforts of the Small Business Administration (SBA), the Department of Justice, and partner agencies to uncover and forcefully respond to fraud in Federal Government contracting programs, such as the Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Program in this case,” said Christopher M. Pilkerton, General Counsel of the SBA.  “Identifying and aggressively pursuing instances of civil fraud by participants in these procurement programs is one of SBA’s top priorities.”

“Providing false statements to gain access to federal contracts set aside for service-disabled veterans denies the government opportunities to meet its abiding commitment to our nation’s veterans,” said Acting SBA Inspector General Hannibal “Mike” Ware.  “The SBA’s Office of the Inspector General is committed to bringing those that lie to gain access to SBA’s preferential contracting programs to justice.  I want to thank the Department of Justice for its leadership and dedication to serving justice.”

“There is an obvious need and reason for service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses in the government contracting process,” said Director Frank Robey of the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID), Major Procurement Fraud Unit.  “Special Agents from Army CID will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to make every contribution possible to bring persons to justice who violate that process.”

This matter was investigated by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York, the FBI, the VA’s Office of Inspector General, the SBA’s Office of Inspector General, and Army CID.

The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.

CCC’s: It Is Time for an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute–Part 3

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This is Part Three of a four-part series of posts by myself and colleague Kimberly Justice on “It Is Time for an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute.”  Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

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Note:   If the Grassley/Leahy Anti-Retaliation Act is passed, that protection would be part of the whistleblower statute. Ms. Justice and I are advocating that an antitrust whistleblower statute should go farther and provide a reward for actionable cartel-busting information.

The SEC whistleblower statute is a very successful model to be followed for a potential antitrust whistleblower statute. There should be differences in some areas (discussed below), but the SEC program has shown to be an effective tool in preserving the integrity of the nations’ securities market while conserving the investigative resources of the SEC.  But, it took a severe financial crisis to overcome the objections to an SEC whistleblower statute.  Many of the stakeholders, such as the Chamber of Commerce that opposed allowing a whistleblower award as part of the Dodd-Frank Act are likely to oppose an antitrust whistleblower statute.  But in November 2016, then SEC chair Mary Jo White said: “The whistleblower program has had a transformative impact on enforcement and that impact will only increase in the coming years.”

The success of the SEC whistleblower statute, at least from an enforcement perspective, is one reason why we think the time has come for a similar antitrust whistleblower statute.  It works.  The SEC, which pays the whistleblower 10-30% of the sanctions collected in successful actions, has rewarded 46 whistleblowers with approximately $158 million for information that has led to successful enforcement actions.

The SEC statute, like the antitrust statute we propose, is different than a typical False Claims Act-type whistleblower claim where the relator (whistleblower) brings an action in the name of the United States alleging the government has been the victim of fraud.  The SEC statute basically provides an informant with a reward (bounty) for coming forward with actionable information where the SEC obtains monetary sanctions.  The SEC, however, is precluded from making monetary awards “to any whistleblower who is convicted of a criminal violation related to the judicial or administrative action for which the whistleblower otherwise could receive an award.”

While the SEC statute provides a model, there are areas where adjustments for the nature of cartel violations may be made in an antitrust whistleblower statute.  The full SEC legislation can be found here, but below are a couple of key provisions and our suggestions about how they might be modified.

Payment of Award

The SEC whistleblower program allows for a reward, “In any covered judicial or administrative action, or related action.” 

The Antitrust Division does not have administrative actions.  An antitrust whistleblower would be eligible for an award, in our view, only based on original information that led to criminal Sherman Act convictions and the imposition of fines based on a conviction.

 Amount of Award

The SEC provides for a whistleblower award only where the penalties exceed $1 million.  In such cases the reward is an aggregate amount [if more than one whistleblower] equal to—

‘‘(A) not less than 10 percent, in total, of what has been collected of the monetary sanctions imposed in the action or related actions; and

‘‘(B) not more than 30 percent, in total, of what has been collected of the monetary sanctions imposed in the action or related actions.

In our view, this may not be an appropriate award schedule for an antitrust whistleblower.  At a minimum, the $1 million threshold should be eliminated. A whistleblower statute may be particularly effective in construction-type contracts where the loss to the victim is acute.  For example, a rigged electrical contract at a local hospital that would have been $750,000 with competitive bidding but has a low fixed bid of $1 million is as worthy of a whistleblower award as an international cartel where each consumer suffers a relatively small loss, but cumulatively the loss will easily exceed $1 million.

Also, the 10 to 30 percent award range may be excessive in a large cartel case.  The impetus behind our proposed legislation is not so much to make a whistleblower a mega-lottery winner, but to provide a way to help the whistleblower pay for what could be substantial attorney fees, and to compensate the whistleblower for what may be a long period of unemployment or underemployment, regardless of anti-retaliation protection. Therefore, we would eliminate the minimum award of 10%, leave the maximum of 30% and perhaps require that in making the award the Antitrust Division consider a) the attorney fees incurred; and b) the likely or actual loss of income over a period of time, as well as the value of the information provided, the level of cooperation and the amount of the recovery.

No Recovery for One Convicted of the Violation

No SEC whistleblower award can be made to ‘‘to any whistleblower who is convicted of a criminal violation related to the judicial or administrative action for which the whistleblower otherwise could receive an award under this section.”

             An antitrust whistleblower statute should certainly retain this provision.  It is our sense that the most likely potential antitrust whistleblowers will be lower-level employees who know about a conspiracy and take some action in furtherance of it—thus creating criminal liability for themselves.  This will give the Antitrust Division much control over who can become a whistleblower.  The Division retains the discretion whether to give non-prosecution protection, a necessary first step before an insider can become a whistleblower.  If the potential whistleblower has a level of culpability such that the Antitrust Division is not comfortable accepting as a whistleblower, the simple answer is to not grant non-prosecution protection.  Another possible scenario is that the Antitrust Division grant non-prosecution protection to a highly culpable individual (making them eligible for an award because no conviction) but write into the cooperation agreement that the cooperator waive the right to a potential “bounty.”

There may be, and hopefully will be, some whistleblowers who do not need non-prosecution protection (customers, administrative staff or others who learn of a cartel but have no role in it).  But, in practice, the Antitrust Division would have significant control over the whistleblower program because it is likely that many potential whistleblowers would have to take as a first step, negotiating non-prosecution agreements.

 Office of the Whistleblower

            A key aspect behind the success of the SEC whistleblower provision is that the SEC actively promotes the program.  The SEC established an Office of the Whistleblower.  This is an excerpt from the office’s home page:

Assistance and information from a whistleblower who knows of possible securities law violations can be among the most powerful weapons in the law enforcement arsenal of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Through their knowledge of the circumstances and individuals involved, whistleblowers can help the Commission identify possible fraud and other violations much earlier than might otherwise have been possible.

The level to which the Antitrust Division promotes a new whistleblower statute will determine its level of success.  When the Division first began the revised leniency program, it rolled it out like a new iPhone.  The Division went to great lengths to advertise the program and make the program successful in practice by working with companies to help them qualify if at all possible.  The flexibility and discretion built in to an SEC style whistleblower statute will give the Antitrust Division the ability to accentuate the features the whistleblower provisions that work best for law enforcement while mitigating any possible downside (such as very culpable people getting awards).

Miscellaneous

We’ve only touched on the most significant feature of the SEC whistleblower program that may be mimicked in an antitrust whistleblower statute.  There would be more “sausage making” into creating actual legislation.  Other features of the SEC program worth noting are the reporting requirements to Congress and the Inspector General review and report on the program.  If an antitrust whistleblower statute is nearly as effective as the SEC statute, law enforcement and consumers will be the winners.  But, if an antitrust whistleblower statute is a bad idea, it can be a short-lived bad idea.  In light of the success of the SEC program, it is prudent to give it a chance.

Thanks for reading

Robert.connolly@geyergorey.com

Kimberly A. Justice, kjustice@ktmc.com

CCC’s: It Is Time For An Antitrust Whistleblower Statute–Part 2

Objections to an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute

The idea of an antitrust whistleblower is not new, but it has never gained much traction in the past.  There have been significant objections, or at least disinterest—particularly from the Department of Justice.  The mood seemed to be “Our cup runneth over with Amnesty applications so let’s not screw this thing up.”  But, perhaps times have changed.  Our analysis is that the objections to a whistleblower statute were either superficial, or when having merit, still not enough to outweigh the benefits of a whistleblower statute.

Before considering some of the possible downside to an antitrust whistleblower statute, a little explanation of what we have in mind may be helpful.  We propose an SEC-style whistleblower statue where an informant can be awarded a level of compensation (bounty) when information of illegality leads to charges and recovery by the SEC. This is different than a False Claims Act qui tam case where a Relator brings a case in the name of the government alleging the government has been defrauded.  In fact, an antitrust whistleblower statute is needed because a qui tam case is not generally available in price-fixing matters since it is the private sector, not the government that has been harmed.

Concerns About an Antitrust Whistleblower statute

 It’s worth noting that the Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act has been passed twice unanimously by the Senate in the last two Congresses and is up for vote again on the Senate floor.  It will no doubt pass—most likely again unanimously.  There is agreement that a person who reports criminal antitrust activity should not face retaliation in the workplace. (Despite the consensus, the House has failed to take up this bill the last two times it has passed the Senate).  There is controversy, however, about whether a whistleblower should be eligible for some type of bounty if the information leads to successful cartel prosecution and the imposition of fines.

In 2011, the General Accounting Office Published a report on Criminal Cartel Enforcement that reported stakeholders’ views on a possible antitrust whistleblower statute (here).  This is a summary of the GAO findings:

There was no consensus among key stakeholders GAO interviewed–antitrust plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys, among others–regarding the addition of a whistleblower reward, but they widely supported adding antiretaliatory protection. Nine of 21 key stakeholders stated that adding a whistleblower reward in the form of a bounty could result in greater cartel detection and deterrence, but 11 of 21 noted that such rewards could hinder DOJ’s enforcement program. Currently, whistleblowers who report criminal antitrust violations lack a civil remedy if they experience retaliation, such as being fired, so they may be hesitant to report criminal wrongdoing, and past reported cases suggest retaliation occurs in this type of situation. All 16 key stakeholders who had a position on the issue generally supported the addition of a civil whistleblower protection though senior DOJ Antitrust Division officials stated that they neither support nor oppose the idea.

The GAO report is several years old and it may be that positions have been reevaluated.  For example, I think the Antitrust Division today would support the anti-retaliation measures in whistleblower statute.  But below is an analysis of some of the objections raised to making a bounty available to an antitrust whistleblower.

Whistleblower Credibility

 The Antitrust Division’s principal concern was that jurors may not believe a witness who stands to benefit financially from successful enforcement action against those he implicated.  GAO Report p. 39.  But, a whistleblower is highly unlikely to ever be a principle witness at a trial.  An antitrust crime typically involves many culpable actors.  A whistleblower would generally “get the ball rolling” and provide evidence that will turn other witnesses, and allow subpoenas and search warrants from target companies.  Further, a single whistleblower who might receive a financial reward seems no less credible than witnesses from an amnesty company where everyone—including the highest-ranking culpable executives—will have escaped criminal prosecution.  Also, criminal antitrust trials are relatively rare—almost all cases are resolved by pleas.  Finally, it is not logical to worry about the credibility of a witness you would otherwise not even know about absent a whistleblower statute.

A Whistleblower Reward Could Result in Claims That Do Not Lead to Criminal Prosecution: 

 There was some fear expressed in the GAO report that would-be whistleblowers would fabricate information in order to conjure up a cartel in the hopes of collecting a reward.  GAO Report p. 40.  Anything is possible, but the Antitrust Division folks are pretty savvy and have standards for opening grand jury investigations.  Moreover, the possibility of fabricated charges exists today with a company applying for leniency in the hopes of knee-capping competitors who would have to deal with a criminal cartel investigation.  The reality is a “false accusation” simply wouldn’t be corroborated by anyone else and could land the accuser in jail for making a false statement.

In a similar vane, concern was expressed that a whistleblower statute may result in a deluge of complaints to the Antitrust Division that would take additional resources to sift through.  This seems like a good problem to have.  When Ms. Justice and I were at the Division, we received a fair number of complaints that amounted to no more than oligopoly pricing.  It did not take too much time to ask: “What else ya got?”

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Buyer Beware

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by Janet Labuda

After the 2009 special enforcement initiative, called Operation Mirage, CBP compiled statistical data proved that the undervaluation of imported goods from China had risen to the level of significant risk in some product categories. Supported by the Administration’s direction to level the trade playing field, addressing undervaluation will continue to be part of CBP’s comprehensive trade enforcement strategy.

While working for CBP, an in-house counsel remarked that you would know you are on the right enforcement track when case law supports your theory of risk.

An example of this observation recently surfaced. In a press release dated October 3, Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported that, as alleged in a False Claims Act complaint, a company called Notations, acting as a wholesaler, repeatedly ignored warning signs that its business partner, which imported garments from China, was engaged in a scheme to underpay customs duties on the imported garments it sold to Notations.  Pursuant to the settlement, Notations admitted and accepted responsibility for failing to act in response to indications of fraudulent conduct. The company agreed to pay $1 million in damages, and implement measures designed to prevent future fraud in its business and supply chain operations.

The importer of women’s apparel manufactured in China presented false and fraudulent invoices to CBP, showing prices that were discounted by 75 percent, or more, to avoid customs duties. The wholesaler, Notations, which was the importer’s biggest customer, admitted that it aided this scheme by repeatedly ignoring warning signs that the importer’s irregular business practices were highly suggestive of fraud.

Notations has also agreed to implement a written compliance policy that will include measures to educate its employees on identifying red flags for fraud in import transactions, to monitor the conduct of its business partners who act as importers, and to report all potentially fraudulent conduct to CBP.

To be noted in this example, the court was successful in pursuing a case against a company that was not the importer of record, and that is in a foreign location.
This should be a warning to all companies. It is recommended that your written compliance plan include steps to monitor the players in your supply chain.   If your suppliers are buying overseas, your procurement team needs to remember that caveat emptor can save them a world of trouble.

Owner of Two New York Medical Clinics Sentenced to 84 Months for Her Role in $55 Million Health Care Fraud Scheme

Friday, September 15, 2017

The owner of two Brooklyn, New York, medical clinics was sentenced today to 84 months in prison for her role in a $55 million health care fraud scheme.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Rohde of the Eastern District of New York, Special Agent in Charge Scott Lampert of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (HHS OIG) Office of Investigations, Special Agent in Charge James D. Robnett of the IRS Criminal Investigation’s (IRS-CI) New York Field Office and Inspector General Dennis Rosen of the New York State Office of the Medicaid Inspector General (OMIG) made the announcement.

Valentina Kovalienko, 47, of Brooklyn, and the owner of Prime Care on the Bay LLC and Bensonhurst Mega Medical Care P.C., was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf of the Eastern District of New York, who also ordered Kovalienko to forfeit $29,336,497. Kovalienko pleaded guilty in October 2015 to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

As part of her guilty plea, Kovalienko acknowledged that her co-conspirators paid cash kickbacks to patients to induce them to attend her two clinics.  Kovalienko also admitted that she submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare and Medicaid for services that were induced by prohibited kickback payments to patients or that were unlawfully rendered by unlicensed staff.  Kovalienko also wrote checks from the clinics’ bank accounts to third-party companies, which purported to provide services to the clinics, but which in fact were not providing services, and the payments were instead used to generate the cash needed to pay the illegal kickbacks to patients, she admitted.

Twenty other individuals have pleaded guilty in connection with this case, including the former medical directors of Prime Care on the Bay LLC and Bensonhurst Mega Medical Care P.C., six physical and occupational therapists, three ambulette drivers, the owner of several of the sham companies used to launder the money and a former patient who received illegal kickbacks.

HHS-OIG, IRS-CI and OMIG investigated the case, which was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, under the supervision by the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.  Acting Assistant Chief A. Brendan Stewart of the Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney F. Turner Buford of the Eastern District of New York, formerly a Fraud Section trial attorney, are prosecuting the case.

The Criminal Division’s Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force.  Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, now operating in nine cities across the country, has charged nearly 3,500 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $12.5 billion.  In addition, the HHS Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with the HHS-OIG, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.

To learn more about the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT), go to: www.stopmedicarefraud.gov.

New Orleans Woman Convicted of Conspiracy, Identity Theft and False Statement Charges for Role in $2.1 Million Medicare Kickback Scheme

Thursday, September 14, 2017

On Tuesday, a federal jury found a New Orleans woman guilty of conspiracy, identity theft and false statements charges for her role in an approximately $2.1 million Medicare kickback scheme.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Duane A. Evans of the Eastern District of Louisiana, Special Agent in Charge C.J. Porter of the Office of Inspector General – Health and Human Services Dallas Field Office and Special Agent in Charge Jeff Sallet of the FBI’s New Orleans Field Office made the announcement.

After a two-day trial, Kim Ricard, age 51, of New Orleans, was convicted of one count of conspiracy to pay and receive kickbacks in connection with Medicare beneficiaries.  In addition, Ricard was convicted of three counts of accepting kickbacks, along with three counts of identity theft and one count of making false statements to federal agents.  Sentencing has been scheduled for December 7, before U.S. District Judge Jane Milazzo of the Eastern District of Louisiana, who presided over the trial.

According to evidence presented at trial, from 2008 to 2013, Ricard and others engaged in a scheme to refer mentally ill Medicare patients to home health agencies in and around New Orleans, in exchange for kickbacks.  The evidence further established that Ricard unlawfully used the Medicare identification information of three Medicare beneficiaries in connection with the scheme. Ricard then lied to investigators, the evidence showed.

As a result of the scheme, Ricard’s co-conspirator caused Medicare to pay over $2.1 million based on those illegally-obtained referrals

One other defendant was charged in this matter. Milton Diaz, 65, of Harvey, Louisiana, pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

This case was investigated by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the FBI.  Trial Attorneys Claire Yan and Kate Payerle of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section are prosecuting the case.

The Criminal Division’s Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force.  Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, now operating in nine cities across the country, has charged nearly 3,500 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $12.5 billion.  In addition, the HHS Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with the HHS-OIG, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.

To learn more about the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT), go to: www.stopmedicarefraud.gov.

CCC’s: It Is Time for an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute —Part I

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Kimberly Justice and I wrote an article published in Global Competition Review arguing that it is time for an “Antitrust Whistleblower Statute.”  [The article is behind a pay firewall (here).]  Kimberly and I will be expanding on this idea in Cartel Capers blog posts over the next two weeks.  Below is the first installment.  We explain why cartels are a great pond to be fishing in for informants, but a little “whistleblower” bait is needed.

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Over the last several years, Senators Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy have introduced antitrust whistleblower legislation that has passed in the Senate but died in the House.  Their proposed legislation would grant job protection to antitrust whistleblowers.  The legislation that Ms. Justice and I are proposing would go further; besides retaliation protection, we would offer potential financial reward to a whistleblower who initiated a successful cartel prosecution.

The time is right for antitrust whistleblower legislation. In 1993, the Antitrust Division revised its Corporate Leniency policy, setting the stage for similar, successful, legislation/polices to be enacted around the world.  Amnesty/Leniency rewards an entire company and its cooperating executives with non-prosecution for coming forward and reporting cartel behavior.  But leniency applications are slowing down—at least that is the perception of many observers—as the cost of obtaining leniency in terms of corporate time and attorney fees, in an expanding universe of jurisdictions, has would-be applicants reassessing the cost/benefit analysis.  A whistleblower statute would not replace, nor in our opinion undercut, leniency policies, but would add a new tool to uncover cartels that exist, and deter new cartels from forming.

There are two features of cartels that are key to understanding why an antitrust whistleblower statute would be a potent and needed weapon in the fight against cartels:

1)         There are many potential whistleblowers in virtually every price-fixing/bid rigging conspiracy.  The culpability level of the many players ranges from Masters (top-level) to Sherpas (working group guy).  Offering a potential whistleblower reward to a single cartel member still leaves a target rich enforcement of culpable executives to focus on; but

2)         It is costly for a potential whistleblower to come forward.  Any member of a cartel, even the least culpable, faces the possibility of significant jail time.  In order for a low-level cartel participant to come forward, he needs to engage a qualified attorney and negotiate a non-prosecution agreement with the Antitrust Division.  This is an expensive, potentially life changing decision.  Long-term unemployment may well follow.  Hefty attorney fees surely will.  Even the most desirable whistleblower—one with no culpability at all, such as a secretary, or customer– will not ensnare herself in a cartel investigation without some means to cover significant attorney costs and reap some compensation for doing “the right [but very costly] thing.”

Ms. Justice and I worked on two investigations which highlight these points.  The first was an international cartel investigation involving both US and foreign companies.  Within each company there were many executives—some retired—that had enough knowledge of the cartel that had they come forward, an investigation would have been opened.  If a single whistleblower had come forward, there still would have been many culpable individuals and companies left to prosecute.

Another prosecution involved a typical bid rigging scheme on a government contract.  This type of scheme is usually initiated by the owner/senior member of the company (who would not be eligible for whistleblower status).  But, it is also typical that an estimator who knows the boss has schemed with a competitor(s) is told to bump up the prices to reflect the agreement.  The estimator is liable as a participant in the cartel, but would make an excellent whistleblower.[1]

Given almost any cartel, international or local, a lower level employee could come forward and likely receive a non-prosecution/cooperation deal under the Antitrust Division’s current Individual Leniency Policy.  But the Individual Leniency Policy is almost never used because a rational person would likely prefer to lay low and hope the crime never gets uncovered than come forward, likely lose his job and have to pay an attorney to negotiate with the Antitrust Division for immunity.  Being an Antitrust Division witness is a marriage that lasts longer than many real marriages.  Criminal antitrust investigations take years, and if it is an international matter, a whistleblower will be called on to be interviewed by many jurisdictions around the globe.  Without some incentive of a reward, an individual would almost certainly not “volunteer” to assist in a cartel investigation.   Even a non-culpable witness/whistleblower such as a customer in whom a salesperson confided or a corporate administrative assistant who saw/heard incriminating information is not likely to come forward to the Antitrust Division on his/her own.

There are many potential antitrust whistleblowers.  But the disincentives to come forward voluntarily are significant.  Some “bait” is needed to entice a whistleblower:  protection from job retaliation and a financial incentive that would cover the significant costs of cooperation and perhaps even provide an “informants’’ bounty.”  The False Claims Act, the SEC and other whistleblower statutes are successful because individuals with knowledge can engage an attorney to guide them through the process in exchange for a possible award of attorney fees and a contingency fee.  The whistleblower’s attorney can develop the potential whistleblower’s claim, negotiate with the government, and represent the potential whistleblower throughout the process, all without an upfront cost to the potential whistleblower.  A former employee, for example, maybe one who has been fired or downsized—would have a way to report illegal conduct without assuming a tremendous legal bill—and even have a financial incentive to do so.

In the next blog post we will discuss some of the objections that have been raised to an antitrust whistleblower statute and why we think none of these concerns are serious enough to kill the whistleblower idea.  But, first, we’ll wrap this segment up by noting a couple of the benefits of a whistleblower statute which may be obvious:

  • A whistleblower can start a criminal cartel investigation with an insider’s view of the agreement and who is party to it. A single whistleblower does not preclude the Antitrust Division from also offering leniency, as it is unlikely one witnesses can provide indictable evidence.  But, whistleblower evidence/assistance should lead to an efficient investigation that preserves the most culpable cartel members for prosecution.
  • Like leniency, as the whistleblower tool gets used and generates publicity, it will be effective in deterring cartels from even forming. This effect is not capable of measurement, but it is logical that if a single member of a cartel (particularly lower-level Sherpas who may not be crazy about carrying out the Master’s scheme) has a means to report the cartel and be rewarded for actionable information, cartel members will have another reason to think twice before engaging in criminal antitrust behavior.

More to come.  Thanks for reading.

robert.connolly@geyergorey.com

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[1]   Where the government is a victim of a fraud—and bid rigging is a fraud—a whistleblower case can currently be brought under the False Claims Act.  There are occasional instances of bid rigging whistleblower case.  But, it would be better to have these types of cases covered by a particular antitrust whistleblower statute and better publicized with an Antitrust Division Office Whistleblower Office.

Four U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in Districts Affected By Hurricane Irma Establish Task Forces in Combating Disaster Fraud and Urge the Public to Be Vigilant in Reporting Suspected Fraud

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) along with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in the District of Puerto RicoSouthern District of FloridaMiddle District of Florida and Northern District of Florida announced the formation of task forces comprised of local, state and federal agencies in their respective areas to combat Hurricane Irma related illegal activity. The NCDF and U.S. Attorneys in those districts urge residents and businesses to immediately report suspected fraudulent activity relating to recovery and cleanup operations, fake charities claiming to be providing relief for victims, individuals submitting false claims for disaster relief and any other disaster fraud related activity.

The U.S. Department of Justice established the National Center for Disaster Fraud to investigate, prosecute, and deter fraud in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when billions of dollars in federal disaster relief poured into the Gulf Coast region. Its mission has expanded to include suspected fraud from any natural or manmade disaster. More than 30 federal, state, and local agencies participate in the National Center for Disaster Fraud, which allows the center to act as a centralized clearinghouse of information related to disaster relief fraud.

While compassion, assistance, and solidarity are generally prevalent in the aftermath of natural disasters, unscrupulous individuals and organizations also use these tragic events to take advantage of those in need. In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the NCDF has already received more than 400 complaints. Examples of illegal activity being reported to the NCDF and law enforcement include:

  • Impersonation of federal law enforcement officials;
  • Identity theft;
  • Fraudulent submission of claims to insurance companies and the federal government;
  • Fraudulent activity related to solicitations for donations and charitable giving;
  • Fraudulent activity related to individuals and organizations promising high investment returns from profits from recovery and cleanup efforts;
  • Price gouging;
  • Theft, looting, and other violent crime

“Unfortunately, criminals can exploit disasters, such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, for their own gain by sending fraudulent communications through email or social media and by creating phony websites designed to solicit contributions,” said Acting Executive Director Corey R. Amundson of the National Center for Disaster Fraud. “Once the NCDF receives a complaint, it routes the complaints to the appropriate federal, state, or local law enforcement agency in the appropriate jurisdiction. In the process, we are able to de-conflict and identify trends, national schemes, and offenders operating in multi-jurisdictions. The Justice Department will aggressively pursue those who commit disaster fraud.”

“Our efforts are directed at enforcing a zero tolerance policy,” said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez for the District of Puerto Rico. “In the midst of the distress and losses caused by Hurricane Irma and the attending need for recovery and rebuilding, there can be no place for fraud and abuse.”

“As our South Florida community recovers from Hurricane Irma, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and our law enforcement partners stand ready to investigate and prosecute in federal court anyone who seeks to re-victimize, defraud or exploit the individuals and businesses in need,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin G. Greenberg for the Southern District of Florida. “Our united enforcement front will work hard to combat criminal activity, including fraud schemes associated with the hurricane’s devastation. Our mission is to ensure that federal, state and local programs, as well as reputable public and charitable assistance initiatives reach those struck by the impact of our recent natural disaster and are not fraudulently diverted to the criminals’ pockets.”

“We will aggressively investigate and prosecute anyone who seeks to defraud or exploit the federal assistance programs established to help individuals, families, or businesses that have lost so much as a result of Hurricane Irma,” said Acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow for the Middle District of Florida. “Our Office will continue to protect the rights of our honest citizens affected by this disaster and ensure that they receive the necessary public and charitable assistance they deserve. If you suspect any fraud, we urge you to call the NCDF Hotline. Our efforts to combat fraud associated with Hurricane Irma will supplement the outstanding and ongoing efforts by the State of Florida and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.”

We do not tolerate fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Christopher P. Canova for the Northern District of Florida. “Individuals, families, and businesses have suffered, and will continue to suffer, tremendous losses. Emergency funds are needed to help them get back on their feet. Dozens of agencies, investigators, and prosecutors are ready to respond to credible allegations of fraud and abuse. If you are aware of fraud, we urge you to call the National Disaster Fraud Hotline.

Members of the public who suspect fraud, waste, abuse, or allegations of mismanagement involving disaster relief operations, or believe they have been the victim of fraud from a person or organization soliciting relief funds on behalf of disaster victims, should contact the National Disaster Fraud Hotline toll free at (866) 720-5721. The telephone line is staffed by a live operator 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also fax information to the Center at (225) 334-4707, or email it to disaster@leo.gov(link sends e-mail).

Members of the public are reminded to apply a critical eye and do their due diligence before giving contributions to anyone soliciting donations on behalf of disaster victims. Solicitations can originate from e-mails, websites, door-to-door collections, mailings and telephone calls, and similar methods. Learn more about the NCDF at www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud. Tips for the public on how to avoid being victimized of fraud are at https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/tips-avoiding-fraudulent-charitable-contribution-schemes.