DEA-Led Crackdown on Prescription Opioid Diversion Targets Medical Professionals with Criminal Charges, License Revocations
LOS ANGELES – A series of investigations led by the Drug Enforcement Administration has resulted in the arrests of nine defendants, most of whom are medical professionals, on federal charges of diverting dangerous narcotics – primarily highly addictive opioids – to the black market.
Operation “Hypocritical Oath” targeted medical professionals with criminal charges, search warrants and administrative actions that led to the revocation of DEA licenses. The targets of the investigations – doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and clinic operators – are suspected of illegally providing controlled substances to “patients” and black market customers in violation of their oaths to “do no harm.” Working with prosecutors from the United States Attorney’s Office, the DEA initiated the operation to combat the nationwide opioid epidemic by identifying, investigating and stopping entities responsible for the illicit diversion of large amounts of pharmaceutical controlled substances. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General worked in partnership with the DEA during Operation Hypocritical Oath.
Over the past week, DEA agents arrested six doctors, physician assistants and suspected drug traffickers on federal narcotics charges. In conjunction with the recent arrests, authorities executed 10 search warrants. Operation Hypocritical Oath also resulted in criminal cases against three other defendants – two of them doctors – and a series of administrative actions by the DEA that led to four medical practitioners losing their licenses.
“As we battle the opioid crisis with interdictions, the dismantling of trafficking organizations and community outreach, we cannot ignore corrupt medical professionals who flood our communities with those same drugs that are killing people each and every day across America,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “Doctors and trained practitioners know better than anyone the twin dangers of addiction and overdose that come with powerful narcotics. Prosecutors in my office have targeted these drug dealers in lab coats for many years, and we will not rest until we see the end of abusive prescribing practices.”
“The successful conclusion of Operation Hypocritical Oath is a testament to not only the hard work of the men and women of the DEA, but is indicative of the terrific partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our federal, state, and local partners,” said DEA Los Angeles Special Agent in Charge David J. Downing. “Today’s arrests and administrative actions should put crooked medical professionals and street dealers alike on notice – we will not tolerate opioids being illegal pushed onto our streets.”
Recently Filed Cases
In a series of cases filed over the past week that allege the distribution of drugs while acting outside the usual course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose, prosecutors have charged doctors, a physician assistant, and a nurse practitioner with illegally writing prescriptions, sometimes with the full knowledge that their “patients” were addicted to the drugs they were providing. In other cases, practitioners took advantage of their insider status to obtain illicit narcotics.
Dr. Michael Anthony Simental, 47, of Corona, who practices at the Kaiser Permanente facility in Riverside, was arrested this morning on charges of illegally distributing hydrocodone, an opioid found in drugs such as Vicodin.
The investigation into Simental began after one of his patients died of a drug overdose last June. Records from the California Medical Board and Kaiser showed a string of disciplinary actions, complaints about his prescribing practices, and questions about his sobriety while working. A criminal complaint filed this week outlines numerous communications between Simental and the overdose victim, some of which indicate that Simental “was aware he was prescribing excessive volumes of opiate drugs” to the woman and her husband.
After the DEA executed search warrants in November, the husband of the overdose victim said he and his wife had been under Simental’s care for years, both had become addicted to opioids prescribed by Simental, and that “Simental would prescribe them whatever drugs they wanted,” according to the affidavit in support of the complaint. An outside expert who reviewed the medical records of the dead woman and her husband said they “were filled with confusing data and…made absolutely no sense.” A wider review of Simental’s prescribing history caused the expert to identify 100 patients who were “receiving potentially unlawful controlled drug prescriptions.”
Gabriel Hernandez, 58, of Anaheim, a physician assistant who works at a Long Beach pain management clinic known as Vortex Wellness & Aesthetics, was arrested on Wednesday pursuant to a criminal complaint that charges him with distributing oxycodone without a legitimate medical purpose. Over a two-year period that ended in November, Hernandez prescribed nearly 6,000 controlled substances – more than half of which were for maximum-strength oxycodone, which means he was responsible for approximately 446,000 oxycodone pills being dispensed, according to court documents.
Hernandez often wrote prescriptions for drug cocktails known as the “holy trinity” – a narcotic, a tranquilizer and/or a muscle relaxant – which are sought out by drug addicts and are particularly dangerous because of the threat of fatal overdose, according to the affidavit in support of the complaint. In 2017, according to records maintained by the state of California, Hernandez wrote a “holy trinity” prescription to a 41-year-old man who died a week later from the combined effects of alcohol and two of the prescribed drugs, according to the criminal complaint. A San Diego pharmacist contacted investigators late last year about suspicious and identical prescriptions Hernandez wrote to three people who appeared to be living in the same house over a hundred miles away from the Vortex clinic.
A medical expert who reviewed data on Hernandez’s prescription history and tapes of two office visits by a law enforcement source concluded that Hernandez’s “actions are much closer to that of an illegal drug dealer than that of a physician, and the patient visits are a sham.”
Hernandez made his initial court appearance Wednesday afternoon before a United States Magistrate Judge, who released Hernandez on bond and scheduled an arraignment for March 28.
Dr. Reza Ray Ehsan, 60, of Bel-Air, was arrested this morning on charges that allege he unlawfully sold controlled drugs to an agent posing as a patient during undercover meetings in December 2018 and January 2019. As documented in an affidavit in support of a search warrant for Ehsan’s medical files, he sold more than 700,000 pills – mostly opioid painkillers – in 2015 and 2016, and he did not report the sales to the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System (CURES), a prescription drug monitoring program that California uses to track the distribution of prescription medication.
Ehsan ordered large quantities of maximum-strength hydrocodone – the kind most sought after on the black market – and sold the pills directly to his “patients,” according to court documents that note many of Ehsan’s “patients” traveled long distances to his Westside medical office and paid for prescriptions in cash or with credit cards instead of through their health insurance plan.
An 18-count indictment also alleges that Ehsan structured cash deposits to prevent banks from submitting mandatory reports for currency transactions exceeding $10,000. Subpoenaed bank records show that, between January 2014 and February 2018, Ehsan deposited more than $1 million in cash into accounts held in the names of himself, his business and his close relatives – all of which were less than $10,000. Most of the deposits during that time were between $9,000 and $9,960, according to the indictment.
Ehsan is charged with two counts of knowingly and intentionally distributing the buprenorphine (a powerful opioid sold under the brand name Subutex), one count of illegally distributing diazepam (best known under the brand name Valium), one count of distributing amphetamine salts (often sold under the brand name Adderall), and 14 counts of structuring financial transactions to evade detection by law enforcement.
Saloumeh Rahbarvafaei, 40, of Northridge, a nurse practitioner employed at several locations, including the Good Neighbor Clinic in Leimert Park, was arrested this morning on charges of unlawfully distributing hydrocodone.
According to the criminal complaint filed in this case, undercover agents purchased prescriptions from Rahbarvafaei during five separate transactions last year. Rahbarvafaei allegedly did not examine either of the two undercover federal agents, and her meetings with them lasted a few minutes each. In each of the five meetings, the agents paid Rahbarvafaei in cash and in return she provided them prescriptions for several narcotics, including hydrocodone, court documents state.
Undercover video of the medical office where Rahbarvafaei worked showed the waiting room usually was overflowing with patients who typically were seen for very short periods of time in Rahbarvafaei’s office, not in an examination room, court papers state. A physician conducting an expert review of the CURES data in this case wrote that Rahbarvafaei has “abandoned the practice of legitimate medicine” and she was selling dangerous narcotics to large numbers of people for “large monetary gain.”
Monica Ann Berlin, 41, of Del Mar, a former employee at a doctor’s office in Beverly Hills and who is presently with a Del Mar-based company that offers perioperative care services, was arrested last Thursday pursuant to a criminal complaint charging her with distribution and possession of a controlled substance. Berlin allegedly stole a signature stamp and prescription pads belonging to the doctor who employed her, and she used them to write fraudulent prescriptions and distribute controlled substances to others.
Between April 2015 and April 2017, Berlin allegedly forged at least 44 prescriptions for controlled substances that another person filled at pharmacies in Beverly Hills and Rancho Santa Fe. In exchange for the drugs, Berlin’s buyer treated her to lavish dinners and bought her gifts. According to the complaint, Berlin sent text messages to her buyer using coded language by describing the drugs as “candies” and “Tic Tacs.”
Berlin made her initial appearance in United States District Court in San Diego on February 14, at which time she was ordered released on a $1 million bond. Berlin is expected to appear in federal court in Los Angeles next month.
Ana Leblanc, 33, of Chino Hills, who worked at a Santa Ana clinic for two weeks last year, was arrested this morning on charges of fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs.
According to a criminal complaint, Leblanc, who has no authority to handle or prescribe controlled substances, used a prescription pad from her employer to write prescriptions for controlled substances, including oxycodone, to herself and others without the knowledge or approval of the doctor listed on the prescription script. In addition, she created a patient chart for herself at her place of employment, “diagnosed” herself with anxiety, and ordered Xanax from the clinic’s medication supply.
The defendants arrested this morning are expected to make their first court appearances this afternoon in United States District Court in Los Angeles, Riverside and Santa Ana.
Previously Filed Cases
As part of Operation Hypocritical Oath, prosecutors previously charged two doctors and a third man who allegedly engaged in a sophisticated scheme to obtain drugs that he subsequently sold on the internet.
Dr. Robert Tinoco Perez, 57, of Westminster, is scheduled to plead guilty on Monday to a conspiracy charge in which he admits writing fraudulent prescriptions to a drug dealer, who then sold the drugs for cash and shared the profits with Perez.
Perez, who has agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, admitted in a plea agreement filed January 29 that he wrote prescriptions for Adderall, oxycodone and hydrocodone between December 2017 and June 2018 to a convicted felon and drug dealer. Perez used bogus patient names to write the fraudulent prescriptions to William Jason Plumley, who sold the prescribed drugs – and also heroin and methamphetamine – to an undercover law enforcement officer. Plumley pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and was sentenced in December to 70 months in federal prison.
Perez is scheduled to appear on Monday before United States District Judge Andrew J. Guilford in Santa Ana.
Christopher James Lazenby, 28, of Homeland, allegedly stole physicians’ DEA numbers and their dates of birth, which allowed him to use the DEA’s online registration system to change the addresses of eight doctors to mailboxes he had rented in South Los Angeles and Carson. Lazenby changed the address of a ninth doctor to show his medical office was a room at a Motel 6 in Inglewood, according to an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint in the case.
With official records showing new addresses for the doctors, Lazenby allegedly forged the doctors’ signatures on counterfeit prescriptions and ordered oxycodone, hydrocodone and Adderall to be sent to the addresses he controlled. After receiving the narcotics, Lazenby used the dark web and Craigslist to advertise the drugs for sale, court documents allege.
Lazenby was arrested in October at a long-term hotel in Torrance. A criminal complaint charges Lazenby with fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance. Lazenby’s arraignment is scheduled for March 15.
Dr. Dzung Ahn Pham, 57, of Tustin, was arrested late last year on federal charges of illegally distributing narcotics by writing prescriptions for the “holy trinity” cocktail for “patients” he didn’t examine. Pham has pleaded not guilty to charges contained in a six-count indictment that was returned by a federal grand jury on January 16. If Pham is convicted in this case, he would face a statutory maximum sentence of 120 years in federal prison. A trial in this case is scheduled for March 12.
Indictments and criminal complaints contain allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.
The charge of illegally distributing prescription narcotics carries a statutory maximum sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.
In addition to the criminal cases being announced today, the DEA took administrative actions to suspend or revoke the ability to prescribe medications against several medical practitioners who are DEA registrants.
These cases were investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General.
This operation was assisted by the Department of Justice Criminal Division’s Fraud Section Health Care Fraud Strike Force in Los Angeles.
The following agencies provided substantial assistance during Operation Hypocritical Oath: The United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General; IRS Criminal Investigation; the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Division of Investigation; the California Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse; the California State Board of Pharmacy; the Medical Board of California; the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Division of Investigation; the California Department of Health Care Services; the Ventura County Combined Agency Narcotic Task Force; the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Bureau of Investigations; the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; the LASD Heath Authority Law Enforcement Task Force; Orange County Children & Family Services; the Irvine Police Department; the Santa Ana Code Enforcement Division; the Costa Mesa Police Department; and the Los Angeles Police Department.
Most of the cases announced today are being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Ben Barron of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. AUSA Barron also coordinated Operation Hypocritical Oath for the United States Attorney’s Office.
Some of the cases are being prosecuted by or with Assistant United States Attorneys Sara B. Milstein (Berlin), Puneet V. Kakkar (Hernandez), Veronica M.A. Alegría (Ehsan), Benedetto Balding (Rahbarvafaei), Benjamin Weir (Leblanc), Rosalind Wang (Perez), Gregory Staples (Pham) and Brett Sagel (Pham).
In addition to the criminal actions announce today, the United States Attorney’s Office has an Opioid and Heroin Awareness and Outreach Program in which federal prosecutors make presentations at schools and to community groups to educate the public on the dangers and the scope of the opioid epidemic.