WASHINGTON – A former Los Angeles church pastor, who owned and operated several fraudulent durable medical equipment (DME) supply companies with her husband, was sentenced today to serve 36 months in prison for her role in a $14.2 million Medicare fraud scheme, the Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced.
Connie Ikpoh, 49, also was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter for the Central District of California to three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $6.7 million in restitution jointly and severally with her co-conspirators.
In August 2011, a jury found Ikpoh, a nurse who also worked at two Los Angeles-area hospitals, and her husband, Christopher Iruke, 61, and one of their employees, Aura Marroquin, guilty of conspiracy and health care fraud offenses following a two-week trial in Los Angeles.
According to evidence presented at trial, Ikpoh and Iruke were pastors at Arms of Grace Christian Center, a Los Angeles church where Ikpoh and Iruke also operated Pascon Medical Supply, a fraudulent DME supply company. Ikpoh and Iruke hired several church members at Arms of Grace to assist them with running Pascon and three other fraudulent DME supply companies, Horizon Medical Equipment and Supply Inc., Contempo Medical Equipment Inc. and Ladera Medical Equipment Inc. The trial evidence showed that Ikpoh owned and operated Horizon. Ikpoh and Iruke used Iruke’s sister Jummal Joy Ibrahim as a straw owner of Contempo and Ladera.
According to the trial evidence, Ikpoh, Iruke, Marroquin and their co-conspirators used fraudulent prescriptions and documents that Ikpoh and 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. Each power wheelchairs cost approximately $900 per wholesale, but were billed to Medicare at a rate of approximately $6,000 per wheelchair. Witness testimony established that Ikpoh and Iruke hid the money they used to pay for these fraudulent prescriptions by writing checks to a company called “Direct Supply,” a fictitious company that Iruke created in the name of an Arms of Grace church member. Iruke cashed the checks that he and Ikpoh wrote to Direct Supply and used the money to purchase the fraudulent prescriptions.
Witnesses who sold the fraudulent prescriptions and documents that Ikpoh, Iruke and their co-conspirators used to defraud Medicare 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.
After Iruke purchased the prescriptions, the trial evidence showed that Ikpoh used the prescriptions at Horizon to bill Medicare primarily for power wheelchairs. In fact, the trial evidence showed that approximately 85 percent of Horizon’s business was power wheelchairs, and that Ikpoh submitted more than $3.2 million in claims to Medicare. Medicare paid Ikpoh more than $1.6 million on these claims. Witnesses who worked at Horizon testified that if Medicare refused to pay Horizon for a power wheelchair, Ikpoh required the witnesses to take back the power wheelchairs from the Medicare beneficiaries.
The trial evidence showed that Ikpoh was also involved with operating Contempo and Ladera. Ikpoh represented herself to state inspectors as Contempo’s manager and appeared on Ladera’s corporate filings with the state. Moreover, witness testimony established that Ikpoh ran the companies when Iruke visited Nigeria and that she and one of her co-defendants, Darawn Vasquez, who was also a church member at Arms of Grace, withdrew money from the Contempo bank account to pay for fraudulent prescriptions.
Witness testimony established that in August 2009, law enforcement agents visited Contempo and Ladera and questioned Marroquin and Vasquez about fraud occurring at the companies. Within a few weeks of the agents’ visit, Iruke closed Contempo and Ladera, which prompted agents to serve Iruke and his and Ikpoh’s attorneys with subpoenas for the companies’ files. Instead of producing the files, Iruke directed that the files be brought to an auditorium used by Arms of Grace, where Ikpoh, Iruke, 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, Ikpoh, Iruke, Marroquin and their co-conspirators submitted more than $14.2 million in fraudulent claims to Medicare and received approximately $6.7 million in reimbursement payments from Medicare. The evidence showed that Ikpoh and Iruke 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.
Vasquez and Ibrahim pleaded guilty to conspiracy and false statement charges in February 2011 and March 2011, respectively, and are awaiting sentencing. On Dec. 9, 2011, Judge Hatter sentenced Marroquin to time served and three years of supervised release. On Jan. 9, 2012, Judge Hatter sentenced Iruke to serve 180 months in prison and three years of supervised release.
Today’s sentence was announced by Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. 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 Glenn R. Ferry of the Los Angeles Region for the HHS Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG); and Assistant Director in Charge Steven Martinez 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 the 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 1,190 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $3.6 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 .