WASHINGTON – Two pastors of a now defunct Los Angeles church and a woman they employed at their fraudulent durable medical equipment (DME) supply companies were convicted late yesterday of conspiracy and health care fraud charges in connection with a $14.2 million Medicare fraud scheme, announced the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services (HHS).
After a two-week trial in federal court in Los Angeles, a jury found Christopher Iruke, 60; his wife, Connie Ikpoh, 49; and Aura Marroquin, 30, guilty of multiple charges. Iruke was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and 17 counts of health care fraud. Ikpoh and Marroquin were each found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and four counts of health care fraud. Marroquin was found not guilty of one count of health care fraud. According to evidence presented at trial, Iruke, Ikpoh and Marroquin billed Medicare for power wheelchairs, orthotics and other DME that were not medically necessary or never provided.
“Mr. Iruke and his wife were persistent and brazen in their efforts to steal millions from the Medicare program,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division. “They opened four different companies to perpetrate their fraud, recruited parishioners from their church and others to help carry it out, and then used the spoils to buy fancy cars and other luxuries. In short, they treated the Medicare program like a personal till. Yesterday, a jury in Los Angeles struck back, and now Mr. Iruke and his co-conspirators will find out the true cost of their shameful scheme.”
“This verdict sends a strong message of deterrence to all engaged in schemes to defraud Medicare,” said U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. for the Central District of California. “My office has worked closely with the Justice Department’s Medicare Fraud Strike Force to crack down on such crimes. We will continue to vigorously prosecute these cases in the future and we look forward to our continued partnership with the Strike Force in that effort.”
“Pastors Christopher Iruke and Connie Ikpoh abused their positions of trust and persuaded those who blindly trusted in them to steal millions of dollars from taxpayers and Medicare,” said Glenn R. Ferry, the Los Angeles Region’s Special Agent in Charge for the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of HHS. “These verdicts show yet again that Iruke, Ikpoh, and others like them, can count on being aggressively pursued and brought to justice.”
“These convictions will undoubtedly deter others from planning to abuse government programs created to help elderly and disabled Americans,” said Steven Martinez, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. “The FBI is committed to continuing to identify individuals using small business as a front for a criminal enterprise at the expense of our health care system.”
According to evidence introduced at trial, Iruke and Ikpoh were pastors at Arms of Grace Christian Center, a church that operated from 5700 Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, where Iruke and Ikpoh also operated Pascon Medical Supply, a fraudulent DME supply company. Iruke and Ikpoh hired several of their parishioners at Arms of Grace to assist them in running Pascon and another fraudulent DME supply company, Horizon Medical Equipment and Supply Inc. Horizon was owned by Ikpoh, who also worked as a nurse at two Los Angeles-area hospitals.
According to evidence presented at trial, Iruke, Ikpoh, Marroquin and their co-conspirators used fraudulent prescriptions and documents that Iruke purchased from a number of illicit sources to bill Medicare for expensive, high-end power wheelchairs and orthotics that were medically unnecessary or never provided. These power wheelchairs cost approximately $900 per wheelchair wholesale, but were billed to Medicare at a rate of approximately $6,000 per wheelchair.
Evidence introduced at trial established that when it appeared to Iruke that he would have to close Pascon due to an audit by Medicare, Iruke convinced his sister, Jummal Joy Ibrahim, and a member of Arms of Grace, Asia Fowler, to allow him to use their names and identities to open two new fraudulent DME supply companies. These companies, Contempo Medical Equipment Inc. and Ladera Medical Equipment Inc., also operated from Los Angeles. After Pascon and Horizon closed, Iruke, Ikpoh, Marroquin and their co-conspirators continued to operate the fraud scheme from Contempo and Ladera.
Witnesses who sold fraudulent prescriptions and documents to Iruke testified that they and others paid cash kickbacks to street-level marketers to offer Medicare beneficiaries free power wheelchairs and other DME in exchange for the beneficiaries’ Medicare card numbers and personal information. These witnesses testified that they and their associates used this information to create fraudulent prescriptions and medical documents which they sold to Iruke and the operators of other fraudulent DME supply companies for $1,100 to $1,500 per prescription. One witness testified that Iruke was nicknamed the “Trash Man” because he purchased fraudulent prescriptions in bulk and took prescriptions that other DME supply company operators did not want, including prescriptions for beneficiaries who lived outside of Los Angeles. In some instances, Iruke and his co-conspirators used the Medicare card numbers and identities of beneficiaries who were dead to bill Medicare for DME.
Trial testimony established that Iruke took extensive efforts to conceal the fraud scheme and his involvement with the companies. One witness who worked at the companies testified that Iruke directed her and Marroquin to refer to the fraudulent prescriptions and documents he purchased as “donuts” or “jobs” because Iruke feared law enforcement was listening to their conversations. This witness also testified that Iruke directed her and Marroquin to lie to state and Medicare inspectors about his involvement with Contempo and Ladera when the inspectors visited the companies. Evidence introduced at trial established that during an August 2009 interview with federal law enforcement agents at Ladera, Marroquin lied repeatedly about how Ladera obtained business and Iruke’s involvement with the company.
Witness testimony established that shortly after agents visited Ladera, Iruke called a meeting at a park, and directed Marroquin and Darawn Vasquez, a member of Arms of Grace who worked at the supply companies, not to talk to law enforcement. Iruke provided Marroquin and Vasquez with cellular telephones, and directed them to use the phones in order to prevent law enforcement from intercepting their conversations. After this meeting, Iruke and Vasquez met at Arms of Grace, and shredded evidence of the fraud scheme. When the shredder overheated, Iruke and Vasquez flushed the evidence down the toilet.
Witness testimony and evidence introduced at trial also established that within a few weeks of the agents visiting Ladera, Iruke closed Contempo and Ladera, which prompted agents to serve Iruke and his attorneys with subpoenas for the files of the companies. Instead of producing the files, Iruke directed that the files be brought to an auditorium used by Arms of Grace, where Iruke, Ikpoh, Marroquin and others altered and destroyed documents within the files to remove evidence of the fraud scheme. Law enforcement agents found Marroquin with these files when they arrested her.
Evidence introduced at trial showed that as a result of this fraud scheme, Iruke, Ikpoh, Marroquin and their co-conspirators submitted more than $14.2 million in fraudulent claims to Medicare, and received approximately $6.6 million in reimbursement payments from Medicare. The evidence at trial showed that Iruke and Ikpoh diverted most of this money from the bank accounts of the supply companies to pay for the fraudulent prescriptions and documents which Iruke purchased to further the scheme, and to cover the leases on their Mercedes vehicles, home remodeling expenses and other personal expenses.
Iruke, Ikpoh and Marroquin were originally charged with Ibrahim, Vasquez and Fowler in an October 2009 indictment. Vasquez and Ibrahim pleaded guilty to conspiracy and false statement charges in February 2011 and March 2011, respectively, and are awaiting sentencing. The charges against Fowler were dismissed during trial.
U.S. District Court Judge Terry J. Hatter scheduled sentencing for Iruke, Ikpoh and Marroquin for Nov. 14, 2011. The maximum penalty for each conspiracy count and each fraud count is 10 years in prison.
The guilty verdicts were announced by Assistant Attorney General Breuer of the Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney Birotte for the Central District of California; Tony Sidley, Assistant Chief of the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse; Special Agent-in-Charge Ferry of the Los Angeles Region HHS-OIG; and Assistant Director Martinez in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.
The case was prosecuted by Trial Attorney Jonathan Baum of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Kirman of the Central District of California. The case was investigated by HHS-OIG with assistance from the California Department of Justice. The case was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, supervised by the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.
Since their inception in March 2007, Strike Force operations in nine locations have charged more than 1,000 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $2.3 billion. In addition, HHS Centers for Medicare and 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 .