By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
New and politically explosive corruption allegations surrounding Broward Health’s no-bid, 25-year contract with 21st Century Oncology – a company financially tied to Gov. Rick Scott – are spilling out publicly with the unsealing of a federal lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale.
Florida Bulldog exclusively reported last year about 21st Century’s unprecedented 2012 contract to provide radiation oncology services at Broward Health, and how it was inked while the governor was an investor in a private-equity firm that owned 21st Century Oncology.
The 53-page whistleblower lawsuit brought by former Broward Health board chairman David Di Pietro against Fort Myers-based 21st Century and 100 “John Does” claims to provide the inside story behind the deal.
“The existence of the 21st Century contract was recently revealed in the media to the public. What hasn’t been revealed is why and how 21st Century received this extraordinary contract from Broward Health,” the lawsuit says. “The answer is kickbacks.”
Along the way, the complaint alleges, Broward Health’s former chief executive officer, Frank Nask, paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in “hush money” to grease the deal. To get Nask on board with 21st Century’s plans, Fort Lauderdale lobbyist William “Billly” Rubin, one of the governor’s closest friends, allegedly offered Nask kickbacks of financial security and the governor’s political protection, while applying political pressure in the governor’s name where necessary.
Specifically, “Rubin promised Nask that [the governor’s] appointments to the Broward Health Board would protect Nask’s continuing employment salary and pension as CEO,” the suit says. “Rubin also communicated the message to Nask that if he did not support the contract with 21st Century, then the appointments to the board would not be his allies and his employment would be terminated.”
Nask’s annual salary at the time was about $680,000, plus performance bonuses and benefits. At the time, it had been publicly reported that the federal government was investigating the district’s contracts with 27 of its physicians – a probe that led to a $69.5 million settlement in 2015 – and Nask “needed allies … Nask agreed to Rubin’s demands,” the complaint says.
21st Century executives ‘fully aware’
“Executives at 21st Century were fully aware and complicit in this kickback scheme,” the complaint says.
Neither Rubin nor Nask could be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for 21st Century said the company does not comment on pending litigation.
Gov. Scott’s Office released this statement: “(Neither) the Governor’s office nor the Governor are named as a party in this lawsuit, which was filed against a private company four days after Mr. Di Pietro resigned from the board in April 2016. Governor Scott has acted to make sure that the North Broward Hospital District is accountable to the taxpayers they serve and will continue to do just that.”
Di Pietro declined to comment. His lawsuit seeks to recover tens of millions of dollars it says were wrongfully billed to Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health-care programs. If successful, whistleblowers like Di Pietro can collect huge rewards.
21st Century operates approximately 145 cancer treatment centers in 17 states. According to the lawsuit, 21st Century “orchestrated” the scheme “to control referrals of cancer patients for radiation oncology services,” targeting Broward Health because it is a major regional treatment center for cancer patients. “Thousands of patients insured by Medicare and other federal healthcare programs” provide “a lucrative revenue stream for 21st Century.”
21st Century has been a reliable contributor to Gov. Scott’s election campaigns. For example, state records show that between May 2012 and January 2014 – the year Scott faced a tough re-election challenge from former Gov. Charlie Crist – 21st Century gave more than $360,000 to Scott’s Let’s Get to work political committee. After Scott was re-elected, the company gave an additional $30,000.
Broward Health, whose legal name is the North Broward Hospital District, has 8,000 employees and operates more than 30 healthcare facilities including Broward Health Medical Center, Broward Health North, Broward Health Imperial Point and Broward Health Coral Springs. It is an independent special district run by an all-Republican board of commissioners appointed by the governor. The district is obliged to treat indigent patients and levies ad valorem taxes of about $170 million a year on property owners in North Broward.
Gov. Scott allegedly involved himself directly in the matter about March 2012 with a phone call to Di Pietro, whom he’d appointed to Broward Health’s board on Rubin’s recommendation in September 2011. Scott’s call came around the time “a colleague of Di Pietro’s” called then-Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll “to advise her that Rubin was using undue influence and political patronage to appoint commissioners to the Broward Health Board in order to get his clients’ contracts approved.”
Scott phoned on a day he was interviewing two potential board members. “Di Pietro told Governor Scott that Nask and Rubin were hand-picking ‘candidates’… and that the two interviews he had that day were not independent candidates; rather they would be doing the bidding of Nask and Rubin. Governor Scott acted upset but he ignored Di Pietro’s concerns. Governor Scott continued to follow Rubin’s lead in appointments to the board,” the suit says.
Days later over lunch, March 27, 2012, Rubin “expressed frustration” at Di Pietro, telling the governor about “my appointments” to Broward Health’s board, the complaint says.
Pressure on El Sanadi
Among those who felt pressure from Rubin was Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, who succeeded Nask in December 2014. El Sanadi commited suicide on Jan. 23, 2016.
Shortly after El Sanadi was hired, Rubin set a Jan. 19, 2015 meeting with El Sanadi, lobbyist Jim Eaton, 21st Century boss Dr. Daniel Dosoretz and Di Pietro. The complaint says that at the gathering, Dosoretz is said to have “bragged” about his “close friendship with Governor Scott” and urged El Sanadi “to give more business to 21st Century.” Specifically, Dosoretz allegedly asked El Sanadi to arrange for Broward Health to circumvent eligibility rules of a government drug discount program for hospitals and buy the chemotherapy drugs used by his company to “save 21st Century monies on those drugs.”
Di Pietro, who operates his own Fort Lauderdale law firm, contends that Rubin continued to meet with El Sanadi “on a weekly basis” until El Sanadi’s abrupt death.
The complaint blames the corrupt 21st Century deal for leading to losses of more than $30 million for taxpayer-supported Broward Health between September 2011 and its filing in April 2016. “Over the course of the potential 25-year term of the contract, Broward Health is on track to lose over $125 million.” Potential billings by 21st Century during the 25-year term “will exceed $800 million,” the suit says.
Di Pietro and his attorneys filed the case under seal in April 2016 under the False Claims Act and Qui Tam statute, part of a Latin phrase that means “he who sues in this matter for the king as well as for himself.” The case was ordered unsealed Friday by Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams after the government declined to intervene. No explanation was given for that decision, though it could involve 21st Century’s July filing in bankruptcy court that seeks to reorganize and shed massive debt.
Prosecutors, however, reserved the right to intervene later “for good cause” or seek dismissal. The decision means the case will proceed with Di Pietro’s team of attorneys prosecuting. Lead counsel is Atlanta’s Bryan Vroon, who in 2015 represented whistleblower Dr. Michael Reilly while extracting $69.5 million from Broward Health to settle allegations of health-care fraud.
The death of Dr. El Sanadi marked the beginning of the end of Di Pietro’s chairmanship.
Six days after El Sanadi’s death, the governor’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, informed Di Pietro that with Scott’s support she would be conducting a review of all of Broward Health’s contracts dating from July 1, 2012.
Timing of state probe of Broward Health ‘no coincidence’
“The cutoff date of contracts to be reviewed by the governor’s chief inspector general is no coincidence. Broward Health originally entered the contract with 21st Century in September 2011,” the complaint says. “There would be a public appearance of an investigation by the governor’s office but the 21st Century contract would escape review.”
On March 18, 2016 Miguel sent a letter to Scott accusing Di Pietro and board member Darryl Wright of interfering with her investigation by hiring outside legal counsel for the board. “Within minutes” Scott suspended Di Pietro and Wright for “acts of malfeasance,” the complaint says.
Days later, Di Pietro asked a Broward judge to reinstate him to the board. On April 11, following a hearing, Circuit Judge Carol Lisa Phillips determined that Miguel’s letter and Scott’s executive order suspending Di Pietro were “devoid of any specific acts of malfeasance” and granted Di Pietro’s petition for reinstatement. Three days later, Di Pietro resigned from the board.
According to the lawsuit, the contract was the result of political intrigue initiated by 21st Century and led by lobbyist Rubin. Specifically, it says Rubin was hired in the summer of 2011 to approach Nask about obtaining a lengthy, exclusive contract.
Di Pietro voted to approve the 21st Century deal in January 2012, apparently not knowing of the governor’s indirect ownership interest in the company or Nask’s hush money payments to HealX Oncology. Months later, after learning of the payout from Broward Health’s then-internal auditor, Maria Panyi, Di Pietro began asking questions.
That summer and fall, Rubin told Di Pietro “not to discuss or investigate the HealX payouts because the issue would ‘hurt’ Nask, 21st Century Oncology and Governor Scott.” Rubin allegedly kept up the pressure on Di Pietro, instructing him to be a “team player” and to support the governor.
To obtain the contract for 21st Century, Nask first had to terminate the existing contract with HealX Oncology. To do so, he arranged for the payment of $830,000 in “hush money” intended to “buy silence” of HealX and Dr. Anurag Agarwal, the complaint says.
The complaint says Broward Health cut three checks to HealX without the board’s approval. Two checks were for $250,000, the limit on payments Nask had authority to authorize alone. The third check for $330,000 was justified as “director fees” for three years, and the district paid “without any supporting documentation.”
Nask ‘obscured’ major losses
The lawsuit says Nask didn’t tell the board about the kickbacks that induced the deal or his hush money payments, while leading board members to believe that HealX had quit. Likewise, Nask “obscured” financial information about the deal from the board, including “major losses” from the deal and the fact that the contract let 21st Century “bill, collect and keep all global revenues associated with outpatient radiation oncology services” – a “major change in the billing arrangement” for the district’s oncology services.
Nask also did not obtain a fair market valuation regarding “the economics of the deal with 21st Century.” Di Pietro didn’t learn the truth until years later, the complaint says.
In the summer of 2014, Nask “saw an opportunity to escape the kickback control of 21st Century” by supporting Charlie Crist over Scott in the gubernatorial race, the complaint says. Nask wanted to leak information then about the ongoing federal probe or to settle prior to the election to hurt Scott. But Rubin learned of Nask’s plan and told Di Pietro to “squash Nask like a bug” and “have him fired.”
Nask was gone by the end of the year, and Di Pietro recommended Dr. El Sanadi as his replacement. After apparently being reassured that El Sanadi would back 21st Century, Rubin pushed the governor to appoint to the board Maureen Canada and Sheela Van Hoose, two El Sanadi supporters. After El Sanadi’s appointment, “Rubin communicated to El Sanadi that he was indebted to Rubin,” the complaint says.
Rubin apparently forgave Nask for his political transgression. The complaint says Rubin lobbied Di Pietro to give Nask a ‘generous’ severance package. “Broward Health paid Nask a full-year of compensation after his retirement,” the complaint says.
In late 2014 and early 2015, Di Pietro “discussed with El Sanadi the unfortunate reality of political control at Broward Health” and that he would “face the challenge of working closely with Rubin” and his addressing his demands to protect and favor 21st Century.
“The message to El Sanadi was clear,” according to the lawsuit.
In addition to counts alleging false claims, the lawsuit also accuses 21st Century of making false statements to obtain payments, conspiring to submit false claims, causing claims to be falsely certified, knowingly retaining overpayments and making false records to avoid having to make refunds.
The complaint’s bottom line: “Without any bids or independent fair market valuations, a private company gained control of a major public hospital system’s referral stream of cancer patients, the entire radiation oncology infrastructure of general space, vault space and radiation equipment and ‘global revenues’ from treating such patients.”