Houston-area physician Dr. Howard Grant and Houston residents Clinton Lee and Obisike Nwankwo were convicted late Wednesday by a federal jury in connection with their roles in a multi-million dollar Medicare fraud scheme, announced the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services (HHS).
After a two week trial in the Southern District of Texas, the jury convicted Grant of two counts of health care fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. Lee and Nwankwo were each convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. Each substantive health care fraud charge and the conspiracy charge carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Lee and Grant are scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 24, 2010, and Nwankwo is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 25, 2010.
Evidence at trial established that Onward Medical Supply, a Houston-area durable medical equipment (DME) company, billed Medicare for fraudulent DME, including power wheelchairs and orthotic devices, beginning in 2003 and continuing until late 2009. In addition to the three defendants convicted Wednesday, seven individuals have pleaded guilty for their participation in various Medicare fraud schemes involving Onward, including Onward’s owner, Doris Vinitski, and its operator for several years, John Lachman.
According to evidence presented at trial, Vinitski worked with Medicare biller and co-defendant John Nasky Okonkwo and others in late 2008 and early 2009 to submit fraudulent claims to Medicare identifying Dr. Howard Grant as the prescribing physician for the DME. The claims were submitted in several groups in November 2008. Evidence presented at trial showed that Grant learned about the fraudulent prescriptions prior to Onward’s submission of the claims to Medicare. Evidence at trial also showed that, upon learning of the prescriptions, Grant asked Vinitski for $10,000 in exchange for allowing the fraud scheme to continue. According to his testimony at trial, Okonkwo has agreed to plead guilty for his participation in the scheme.
Evidence at trial established that Lee and Nwankwo acted as delivery drivers for Onward. According to evidence presented at trial, Lee was fully aware of the fraudulent business practices of Onward and agreed with Vinitski to make DME deliveries for a lower price than her other drivers. Lee admitted in a statement to a government agent that he knew that the DME business was "going to the government trough" and that he did not mind working with Vinitski because he hoped to open his own DME business. According to evidence presented at trial, Nwankwo was a driver for several DME companies and delivered DME such as power wheelchairs and orthotics for Onward to beneficiaries who did not want or need the equipment. One beneficiary testified at trial that when Nwankwo tried to deliver a power wheelchair to her, she told him to get off her front step or she would call the police.
Following the verdict, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Atlas ordered Grant to surrender his medical license and his Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) number and to stop all billing to Medicare and Medicaid.
These convictions are announced by Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney José Angel Moreno of the Southern District of Texas; Richard C. Powers, Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI’s Houston office; Special Agent-in-Charge Mike Fields of the Dallas Regional Office of HHS Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), Office of Investigations; and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on behalf of the Texas Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU).
The case was prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Jennifer L. Saulino, O. Benton Curtis III and Nicola J. Mrazek of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and was investigated by the FBI, HHS-OIG and MFCU.
The case was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, supervised by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas and the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.
Since their inception in March 2007, Medicare Fraud Strike Force operations in seven districts have obtained indictments of more than 560 individuals who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $1.2 billion. In addition, HHS’s 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