Seven indicted, three plead guilty in fraud

A New Orleans grand jury on Thursday indicted seven people for their roles in a $56 million Medicare fraud scheme that operated in New Orleans and surrounding communities. Thirteen defendants have now been charged in this case; three pleaded guilty this week.

Paige Okpalobi, 57, of Slidell; Joe Ann Murthil, 57, of New Orleans; Latausha Dannel, 34, of LaPlace; Dr. Winston Murray, 62, of Hammond; Dr. Divini Luccioni, 53, of Kenner; Christopher White, 48, of Destrehan; and Beverly Breaux, 66, of New Orleans, were charged in connection with their roles in a home health care fraud scheme involving thousands of Medicare recipients.

Mark Morad, 51, of Slidell; Dr. Barbara Smith, 65, of Metairie; and Dr. Roy Berkowitz, 68, of Slidell, had been previously charged for their participation in the scheme, and Thursday’s indictment added new charges against them.

The indictment came one day after Dr. Alvin Darby, 58, of Slidell; Demetrius Temple, 54, of New Orleans; and Nicole Oliver, 44, of Napoleonville, each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud for their roles in the scheme.

Sentencing for each is scheduled Jan. 7 before U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance.

The indictment alleges the defendants operated a number of companies in and around New Orleans that purported to offer home health services and durable medical equipment to Medicare beneficiaries.

The companies — Interlink Health Care Services Inc., Memorial Home Health Inc., Lakeland Health Care Services Inc., Lexmark Health Care LLC, Med Rite Pharmacy Inc. and Medical Specialists of New Orleans — billed Medicare claiming that they provided home health services and durable medical equipment to Medicare beneficiaries, but the vast majority of the services and equipment were not medically necessary or were not provided.

Morad and Okpalobi owned and directed operations at the companies. Morad allegedly paid kickbacks to patient recruiters, including Temple and Oliver, to provide Medicare beneficiary numbers that were then used to bill Medicare. To conceal the kickbacks, Morad allegedly laundered Medicare money through a separate company he owned.

Court documents also allege that Okpalobi instructed doctors, including Smith, Berkowitz, Murray, Luccioni and Darby, to falsely certify that beneficiaries were qualified for home health services and to prescribe medical equipment that was not medically needed.

Murthil and Dannel were office managers who allegedly oversaw daily operations at the home health companies. White performed accounting services for the companies and allegedly helped conceal the scheme by fabricating false tax and employee records. Breaux was a registered nurse who is alleged to have falsely certified that home health clients were homebound and that she had provided home health care services when she had not.

From 2007 through 2014, the companies involved in the alleged scheme submitted more than $56 million in claims to Medicare, most of which were allegedly fraudulent. Medicare paid approximately $50.7 million on those claims.

Since it began in March 2007, the government’s Medicare Fraud Strike Force, now operating in nine cities across the country, has charged nearly 2,000 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $6 billion.

Three arrested in thefts from airport luggage

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has arrested three people for allegedly stealing firearms and electronics from luggage checked on outgoing flights from Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Sheriff Newell Normand said Thursday that the arrests of Derrin James, 19, of New Orleans; Romalice Honeycutt, 23, of Kenner; and Neishel Santana, 22, of New Orleans; stemmed from an Aug. 18 tip from authorities in Dallas.

The JPSO learned that an Apple MacBook laptop stolen from the luggage of an American Airlines passenger flying out of New Orleans was pawned at a shop in Metairie. A detective recovered the laptop from the pawn shop and learned that Santana, who works for the baggage handling company Envoy Air Inc., had pawned it.

Santana was arrested at work Thursday and told authorities she had taken the laptop from a passenger’s luggage and that James and Honeycutt had taken firearms and other items from luggage checked on American Airlines flights, as well, the JPSO said.

James and Honeycutt were then arrested at work but were unresponsive to questioning.

Santana allowed investigators to search her vehicle, leading to the recovery of two iPads, two laptops, a GoPro camera and several other electronic items, all of which Santana said were stolen. A Kindle tablet found there was confirmed stolen in a theft reported in January.

Santana was booked with one count each of theft and possession of stolen property. James was booked with two counts of theft of a firearm. Honeycutt was booked with being a principal to theft of a firearm.

Anyone with information about airport thefts is asked to contact Detective Shane Rivolo at (504) 364-5300 or Crimestoppers at (504) 822-1111.

Officer suspended after use of force claim

The New Orleans Police Department said Thursday that Officer Terrance Saulney has been placed on emergency suspension without pay based on an allegation involving an unauthorized use of force.

A 24-year veteran of the NOPD, Saulney most recently was assigned to the NOPD Juvenile Bureau.

On Tuesday, he was involved in a “use of force” incident at the Juvenile Bureau involving a 16-year-old female who was being processed in intake. Following the incident, Saulney reported the use of force to his supervisor, who obtained video surveillance from inside the bureau. After reviewing the video, the supervisor contacted the Public Integrity Bureau’s Force Investigation Team and asked it to investigate the incident.

Based on its initial review of the surveillance video, the PIB placed Saulney on emergency suspension without pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

The NOPD has notified the Department of Justice, the federal consent decree monitor and the independent police monitor of the investigation.

Two arrested in series of West Bank robberies

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office said it has arrested two people in connection with several West Bank business robberies.

It said three of the crimes occurred Sept. 18: an attempted armed robbery at 7 p.m. at Taqueria La Conquistadora, 2322 West Bank Expressway; an armed robbery at 7:50 p.m. at a Chevron station at 4915 West Bank Expressway; and an attempted armed robbery at 9:25 p.m. at a Motel 6 at 3750 West Bank Expressway.

On Saturday, the same man is believed to have entered the Circle K at 5000 West Bank Expressway, Marrero, at 4:20 a.m. armed with a semi-automatic handgun. After demanding and receiving money from the clerk, he fled.

Detectives received a Crimestoppers tip identifying the suspect as Arkelle George, 37, of Harvey, and he was arrested Wednesday at his home. He also was identified as the suspect in a pedestrian robbery that occurred Sunday on Liro Lane in Harvey, the JPSO said.

George was booked with three counts of armed robbery and two counts of attempted armed robbery.

Also arrested was Reanna Mataya, 37, identified as George’s girlfriend. She was booked with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Investigators said they also determined the vehicle used in the robberies was a 2006 Chevrolet Tahoe registered to Mataya.

Scam caller claims to be with Sheriff’s Office

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain is warning residents of a new scam.

Over the weekend, a Slidell woman was contacted by a man claiming to be a Sheriff’s Office lieutenant. The man requested she go to a CVS store and buy a “MoneyPak” card to pay a fine. If she did not, he said, a warrant would be issued in her name for failure to appear for jury duty.

When the woman questioned the man, he provided a fictitious supervisor’s name and badge number and told her the name of a local judge, saying that judge would be signing the warrant. She was then told deputies would be at her residence within moments to arrest her.

Minutes later, the Sheriff’s Office received a call reporting a residential burglary at the woman’s home.

Responding deputies, finding no evidence of a burglary and after speaking with the woman, realized the call was part of a scam.

Strain said the Sheriff’s Office does not solicit or accept “MoneyPak” cards as payment of a fine or in lieu of a warrant being issued, nor does it make initial contact via phone regarding the collection of a fine. It does not accept any form of payment over the phone.

Anyone in St. Tammany who believes they may have been a victim of this or any scam is asked to call (985) 898-2338.

NOPD seeks man in home invasion attempt

The NOPD is requesting assistance in identifying a man who tried to invade a residence in the 5100 block of Desire Drive about 12:45 a.m. Tuesday.

A 28-year-old woman was preparing to enter her home when she saw the man running toward her with a gun. The man tried to force his way in, but she was able to close the front door, and he fled.

The suspect is described as a black male, brown complexion, 5-foot-10, medium build and about 175 pounds. He was wearing a black T-shirt and black cargo pants.

Police released a computer sketch of the man.

Third District Detective Khristopher Kirkland is in charge of the investigation.

Anyone with information is asked to call Crimestoppers at (504) 822-1111.

Police seek man in shoplifting attempt

The NOPD is asking the public’s assistance in locating a man wanted in connection with a shoplifting incident Wednesday at the Family Dollar store at 2147 S. Claiborne Avenue.

About 10:15 a.m., a man walked into the store and began placing boxes of dental products in a backpack. As he tried to leave, the manager was able to get the items back.

Anyone with information is asked to call (504) 822-1111.