By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Weeks after being accused of spying on the defense in a $55-million Medicare fraud case, the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office gave all three defendants generous plea deals that closed the case and made the misconduct accusations go away.
At the same time, the government quietly fired the Fort Lauderdale-based copying service at the center of the scandal. Imaging Universe had improperly supplied the government with duplicates of documents that defense lawyers cherry-picked out of 220 boxes of seized records while searching for evidence helpful to their clients.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office investigated the matter, but declined a request by FloridaBulldog.org to make public its findings.
Dr. Salo Schapiro, the 71-year-old former medical director of Biscayne Milieu Health Center, faced up to 100 years in prison and $55 million in liability when he was indicted for conspiracy and health care fraud in September 2014. But last June 20 – less than three weeks after the Florida Bulldog reported the story – prosecutors who once had trumpeted the case allowed psychiatrist Schapiro to plead guilty to a single count of making a false statement.
Schapiro’s punishment: a $10,000 fine. He continues his medical practice in Boca Raton, but no longer takes Medicare patients. His online biography does not mention his felony conviction.
Schapiro’s two co-defendants, indicted on similar charges, got similarly light treatment.
Nurse practitioner Marlene Cesar, 64, of Allentown, PA, pleaded guilty July 1 to stealing less than $1,000 in Medicare benefits and was fined $150. On July 28, 74-year-old mental health counselor Sonia Gallimore, who like Schapiro was from Broward, was placed on pretrial diversion for six months.
“The story is in the results,” said Schapiro’s Miami attorney, Howard Srebnick.
Srebnick and his associate, Rossana Arteaga-Gomez, raised the matter in court filings in late May. Their motion argued that the government had a practice of secretly obtaining copies of documents the defense had flagged as important and asserted it was not the action of “just one rogue [FBI] agent or prosecutor.” Rather, the motion said, it appeared to be “an office-wide policy” of both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI that has gone on for “at least 10 years.”
Several days of hearings, open and closed, were held before Miami U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke. They culminated with Schapiro’s combined guilty plea and sentencing hearing June 20 on the reduced felony charge.
Credibility in question
After negotiating the plea deal for his client, attorney Srebnick withdrew his motion at the hearing. He said its allegations “were based solely on the statements and emails of the owner of the copy service, whose credibility, at a minimum, has come into question during this litigation.”
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer issued this statement:
“When we learned of the copy service issue, our prosecutors immediately notified the defense lawyers. Unintended circumstances can arise — the test is what you do when faced with such circumstances. Here, rather than resolve the matter privately, we were completely open and transparent. We urged the defense to air it in public. Ultimately, the defense counsel acknowledged that they had no information the prosecutors had looked at any of the materials in question and that the prosecutors in the case acted appropriately and ethically.”
The owner of Imaging Universe is Ignacio E. Montero. He did not return several phone messages seeking comment.
The motion said Montero told attorney Arteaga-Gomez that he’d provided the U.S. Attorney’s Office “duplicate copies of the discovery documents selected by defense counsel in other cases” for the past 10 years.
Court papers alleged that Imaging Universe and Montero gave the government CDs containing duplicates of documents Schapiro’s defense team had culled from the 220 boxes of records agents had seized from Biscayne Milieu. The records were stored at an FBI warehouse in Miramar, where defense lawyers who wanted copies of such records were required to use Imaging Universe.
The government later acknowledged that Imaging Universe did supply the FBI with duplicate CDs of what it had copied for Schapiro’s defense team, but said the discs “were never requested by any agent, prosecutor or anyone else on the government’s behalf.”
No ‘pervasive’ spying
Assistant U.S. Attorney James V. Hayes was the lead prosecutor on the case. He has said in court papers that he was unaware of the duplicate CDs until an FBI agent disclosed their existence in April. He and co-counsel Lisa H. Miller, a Justice Department fraud attorney, said they immediately told “Montero to stop and began an internal inquiry.” They also said “no pervasive practice of receiving or recording defense discovery” was found.
Still, the government sent out notifications about what happened to lawyers for a number of unidentified defendants. Officials declined to say how many attorneys were notified.
Defense lawyers recently raised a similar issue “of government invasion of the defense camp” in at least one unrelated case involving an allegedly fraudulent sweepstakes scheme.
Prosecutor Hayes informed Srebnick on April 22 that FBI Agent Deanne Lindsey “had been surreptitiously receiving the CDs,” according to the defense motion. “Hayes proposed to immediately destroy the CDs,” but the lawyers instead asked that he give them to the defense, “which he did.”
“Covertly cloning defense counsel’s work-product to obtain a tactical advantage is nothing short of ‘shocking to the universal sense of justice,’ ” Srebnick and Arteaga-Gomez wrote.
Court records show that between June 8 and 16 U.S. District Judge Cooke held a series of open and closed hearings about the matter. Early on, the judge indicated she would make a ruling on the motion and even asked both sides what possible remedies were available should she find “pervasive” misconduct by the government.
But the judge never ruled on the merits of the defense motion. The matter became moot when Srebnick withdrew it after prosecutors offered Schapiro the plea deal and he accepted.