The pastor of a now defunct Los Angeles church who owned and operated several fraudulent durable medical equipment (DME) supply companies was sentenced today to 180 months in prison for his role in a $14.2 million Medicare fraud scheme, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced.
Christopher Iruke, 61, was also ordered to pay $6.7 million in restitution, jointly and severally with his co-conspirators, by U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter of the Central District of California. In addition, Judge Hatter ordered Iruke to serve three years of supervised release following his prison term.
In August 2011, a jury found Iruke and his wife, Connie Ikpoh, 49, 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 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 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 and his 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.
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 lie to state and Medicare inspectors about his involvement with Contempo and Ladera when the inspectors visited the companies.
Witness testimony established that shortly after agents visited Ladera, Iruke 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. Iruke and Vasquez then met at Arms of Grace, and shredded evidence of the fraud scheme.
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 $6.7 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.
Ikpoh is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 27, 2012. 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.
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 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 1,160 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $2.9 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 .