The nation’s eighth Medicare Fraud Strike Force, established 18 months ago in Baton Rouge, has won its first trial against four people accused of stealing between $2.5 million and $14 million in tax dollars.
A jury of six women and six men returned guilty verdicts Tuesday night against Dr. Sofjan M. Lamid, 82, of Mandeville; Henry Lamont Jones, 36, of Zachary; Nnanta Felix Ngari 54, of Prairieville; and Ernest Payne, 51, of Houston.
Attorneys for the four men already had filed motions for dismissal of all charges with U.S. District Judge James J. Brady. The judge has not yet ruled on those motions.
Justice Department prosecutors Ben Curtis and David Maria told jurors during the nearly three-week trial that Ngari used his Unique Medical Solution Inc. to obtain nearly $2.5 million from Medicare for 394 medically unnecessary power wheelchairs.
Curtis and Maria said those $6,000 machines were prescribed by Lamid, a physician who once taught at LSU. The prosecutors said Lamid billed Medicare for the time he spent with those 394 patients. They said Lamid also received kickbacks of $50 to $100 from Ngari’s operation.
Lamid denied all criminal allegations during his trial testimony.
Telephone and email requests Wednesday for comment from Lamid’s defense attorney did not result in any statement.
But Andre Belanger, attorney for Ngari, said the case is not over.
“We respect the jury’s decision and appreciate all their time and effort,” Belanger said. “But I still believe in Mr. Ngari and will not stop fighting for him.”
If Brady denies the motions for dismissal of all charges, Belanger said, Ngari will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn his conviction.
Each of the defendants was convicted for conspiracy to defraud Medicare and conspiracy to pay or receive health-care kickbacks.
Each charge carries a possible 10-year prison term and possible fine of $250,000, according to a joint statement by Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney Donald J. Cazayoux Jr. in Baton Rouge.
Brady did not immediately schedule a sentencing hearing for the four men. The judge ordered Lamid not to submit any additional bills to Medicare or Medicaid.
Jones and Payne organized health fairs and recruited elderly and rural people to attend the health fairs at which Lamid appeared, Curtis and Maria told jurors.
Maria said Payne received at least $60,000 for that work. He said Jones received at least $100,000.
“Ernest Payne is a good man, and his conviction in this case does not change that,” Edward J. Gonzales, Payne’s attorney, said Wednesday. “I am presently evaluating the case for appeal purposes.”
Frank Holthaus, Jones’ attorney, said he believes jurors were confused by an audio recording made by convicted felon and prosecution witness Bonnie Simmons, 60, of Kentwood. Holthaus contends the conversation inaccurately depicts Jones as knowledgeable about payments to Lamid.
“I just think the jury was presented with confusing evidence and could not see that when Henry was a recruiter … (he) believed he was doing things the right way,” Holthaus said.
Holthaus said Jones would wait until after Brady rules on the motion for dismissal of all charges before deciding whether to file an appeal.
Jones and Lamid have yet to be tried with 11 other defendants in a second Medicare fraud case. And Jones faces a third trial with five other people on Medicare fraud charges.
Combined, those three cases involve Medicare losses of more than $14 million, Curtis and Maria have stated in court filings.
In addition to Simmons, five other people have pleaded guilty as a result of Strike Force indictments in the past year.
Yet another five people await trial in a separate Medicare fraud case.