By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis hadn’t even put a tooth under his pillow before his political action committee raked in the curious $50,000 contribution that foreshadowed his office’s launch of Operation Tooth Fairy.
Republican Patronis, who appears to fancy himself as Florida’s next governor, trumpeted Tooth Fairy in a press release as the takedown of a major insurance fraud scheme. But the case quickly flopped with Miami-Dade prosecutors after it turned out that no one had actually lost any money in the “$1.3 million fraud.”
Unfortunately, that was not before five unlucky employees of a Hialeah-based dental practice were arrested, briefly jailed, threatened with up to 30 years in prison by Patronis’s detectives and had their mugshots broadcast on TV.
The backdrop to the April 11, 2023 arrests was a pending multi-million-dollar lawsuit for control of the practice, One Care Pediatric Dental. In fact, attorneys defending the five who were charged say the lawsuit looks to be why the $50,000 contribution was made to Patronis’s Treasure Florida PAC.
“You know, in politics there’s pay to play, right? We coined the phrase among the lawyers that this was pay to prosecute,” said Miami criminal defense attorney Sam Rabin, who represented One Care’s regional manager, Leonel Ravelo.
“Certainly pay to arrest, yeah, for sure,” said Jeffrey Marcus, the attorney for Mercedes Linares, One Care’s vice president of contract accreditation and quality assurance.
“They were too afraid to go after the bigger fish as part of this escapade. They just picked on the little folks, thinking that they’ll scare them into lying, you know, coming up with something to make a game,” said Marcus. If so, that didn’t happen.
One Care is the public facing name of ACPDO Management Inc., which is the dental management company created by joint agreement when Miami venture capital firm Boyne Capital acquired the non-clinical assets of the two-office pediatric dental practice of dentists Jose Mellado, a periodontist, and his wife, Ania Cabrerizo, in February 2020.
THE $24.6 MILLION DENTAL DEAL
Mellado and Cabrerizo were paid $24.6 million in the deal, plus a 33 percent stake in ACPDO Management, according to court records.
Most of the children the couple saw at their offices in Hialeah and Little Havana were Medicaid patients. Under the terms of the deal, Mellado and Cabrerizo would continue to run the clinical side of the business and the management company would run the rest of its operations.
But things quickly went sour. And in the spring of 2022 Mellado and Cabrerizo, who had hoped to use the sale to expand their practice across the state, were fired for an alleged pattern of “intentionally disruptive, unprofessional and toxic behavior.”
Two months later, the couple sued ACPDO, Boyne Capital and others in an effort to take back control of the assets they had sold, alleging various counts of breach of contract, wrongful termination and libel. In early August 2022, they added a sense of urgency to their claims, asking a Miami-Dade judge to immediately hand back control “during the pendency of this case,” court paperwork says.
But by Sept. 1, 2022, after the defendants filed a scathing retort decrying how Mellado and Cabrerizo had sought to portray themselves as “victims” despite receiving $24.6 million from the sale, the couple abruptly dropped their effort to seek an injunction. Instead, they asked the court for permission to change their lawsuit’s assertions. They did that a couple of months later.
THE $50,000 CONTRIBUTION TO PATRONIS’S PAC
State election records show that on Sept. 2, 2022 Mellado and his long-time friend, business associate and wealthy fellow Republican stalwart Barbara Feingold, made a pair of donations to Patronis’s Treasure Florida PAC. Mellado contributed $2,000; Feingold gave $50,000, the largest single donation to the PAC by an individual since 2018.
It is the only recorded time that Feingold and Mellado donated to Patronis’s PAC.
By December, Patronis’s detectives were on the case. Word on the street was that Patronis “took ownership of this investigation himself and was pushing it with the law enforcement folks. It was sort of out of character for the CFO to be that involved in an investigation,” according to a Republican donor and bundler who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Defense attorneys sensed it. “Things happened that were very unusual,” said Rabin. “It just seemed like there was an invisible hand guiding this.”
Rabin cited several oddities. Patronis’s detectives rejected the lawyers’ requests to delay arresting the five to allow them time to present their defense and show why the arrests were not warranted. He said the detectives lied when they assured him that the department wasn’t going to publicize the arrests. And after his client was arrested, the report submitted to justify it “had a lot of errors.”
“For example, my guy, Ravelo, they described him in his arrest report as a part owner of one of the clinics, and he’s not. They said he was given shares in the company. That’s just totally incorrect. They made lots of errors,” said Rabin.
OPERATION TOOTH FAIRY
It’s unclear precisely when the investigation began because the CFO’s office has yet to make the case file public. The first public records request was made months ago by attorneys for the defendants, and later by Florida Bulldog. Defense lawyers have been told they were informed the file would not be released because it remained “an ongoing investigation” – despite its rejection by prosecutors.
Defense lawyer Rabin said he heard “through back channels” that the case remained active because Patronis was “shopping the case to other prosecutors. I have never heard of that happening before.”
The Republican bundler said Patronis did indeed shop the case. “My understanding is that when the criminal charges were dropped Jimmy was personally pitching prosecution to the attorney general’s office and the attorney general [Ashley Moody] told him to pound sand,” he said.
While what went on behind the scenes in Operation Tooth Fairy remains obscure, paperwork that is public establishes how it began: with a complaint to the CFO’s office filed by Cabrerizo, who said her identification was used to bill various insurance carriers for services after she’d been canned.
Within days of the five arrests on April 12, 2023, lawyers for Mellado and Cabrerizo used the arrests as the basis for another motion to regain immediate ownership of the company. Attached to the motion were copies of the arrest affidavits.
The strategy soon crumpled. On May 23, Assistant Miami-Dade State Attorney Michael Spivack, who works in the insurance fraud unit, wrote a three-page close out memo spelling out why there was “no basis for action.”
THE PATRONIS ‘WHISPERER’
Spivack explained that before Caberizo was fired, her personal identification was “routinely and automatically entered as the dentist who supervised the services to the patients, despite the fact that other dentists had in fact performed the supervision. I have verified with the representative of one of the victim insurance companies that such practice, if it did in fact occur, was not in violation of the law.”
While the dental office had misused Caberizo’s identification number for five months, the practice was halted after it “was brought to the attention of the management company by an insurance company,” Spivack wrote. The claims that were paid were legitimate, and not wrongly inflated.
“The investigation did not reveal that the patients had not received the treatment. Nor did the investigation show that the treatment had not been supervised by a licensed dentist,” Spivack wrote. He said he declined to prosecute after thoroughly reviewing the case, adding, “I base my opinion having tried over 300 jury trials in South Florida, over the span of 37 years, having appeared in both state and federal court.”
Did Feingold intervene with Patronis to get Mellado’s civil court opponents in trouble with the law in order to help him prevail in his lawsuit, as defense lawyers believe?
Knowledgeable sources interviewed by Florida Bulldog said Feingold is close to Patronis. The Republican donor and bundler described Feingold as “Jimmy Patronis’s whisperer.”
Neither Feingold, Mellado nor Patronis – via detailed emailed requests left with his communications office – responded to requests for comment.
THE FAU ANGLE
What is clear, however, is that Feingold and Mellado, both heavy donors to Gov. Ron DeSantis, have political clout in Tallahassee. DeSantis appointed Barbara Feingold to Florida Atlantic University’s board of trustees in 2021. DeSantis named Mellado to a four-year term on the Florida Board of Dentistry that began in November 2020.
Feingold also serves on FAU’s presidential search committee with Mellado, whom she recommended for the post. The pair combined to push for controversial State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, who was DeSantis’s initial choice for the job.
“Mellado was essentially Barbara’s wingman in trying to get Randy Fine over the top,” said the Republican bundler.
At one point in the search, after the Florida Board of Governors opened an investigation following Feingold’s loud criticism of the search process because Fine failed to make the cut as a finalist for the job, Feingold got Patronis to intervene publicly in the matter, said another Republican source close to the matter.
On Aug. 23, Patronis went on X, formerly known as Twitter, to say that he saw “lots of smoke surrounding this process” and that he was thinking about doing a second probe since “my office has the authority to investigate any fraud, waste or abuse that may be happening in the state.”
Patronis, however, apparently never followed through. And after Fine defected to support Donald Trump as presidential nominee last month, his chance for the job went from slim to none.
MCNA AND BUYING POLITICAL CLOUT
As evidence of Barbara Feingold’s political clout, state election records show that since 2006 she personally has donated more than $360,000 to mostly Republican candidates and causes. That includes the $50,000 to Patronis’s PAC and $110,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC after her appointment as an FAU trustee. Her husband, the late Dr. Jeffrey Feingold, kicked in another $25,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis in March 2021.
Jeffrey Feingold founded Managed Care of North America (MCNA Dental Plans). Barbara Feingold was senior vice president and director of the umbrella company MCNA Health Care Holdings, one of Florida’s largest Medicaid dentistry managed care organizations.
Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (ACHA) announced its intention to award MCNA a contract to administer the state’s Medicaid dental program on June 28, 2018. MCNA was one of the key insurance companies that later paid claims filed by Mellado and Cabrerizo’s dental practice.
Like his wife, Jeffrey Feingold was a prolific political contributor. Between 2006 and his death from cancer in October 2021, he handed out about $200,000, most going to the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF). But he won his greatest influence by using Fort Lauderdale-based MCNA to donate more than $3 million in corporate funds during the same period – most, again, going to the RPOF and various conservative causes and candidates. Friends of Ron DeSantis got $100,000 in 2018 and Patronis’s Treasure Florida PAC collected $75,000 in 2017-2018. Why Patronis? Florida’s CFO regulates insurance companies in the state.
Jeffrey Feingold used the same pattern of spreading around large, often concentrated political contributions to gain favor in Texas, where MCNA began operations as a provider of Medicaid dental benefit management services in 2012 and was awarded a new contract in 2019. Texas Ethics Commission records show that Jeffrey Feingold contributed $20,000 to Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s successful 2010 re-election campaign. He later gave a total of $100,000 to the campaign of Perry’s successor, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. MCNA was also the single biggest contributor to Perry’s unsuccessful run for the White House in 2016.
In January 2016, a year after Perry departed the Texas governor’s office, Politico Florida reported that he was then in the governor’s office in Florida meeting with then-Gov. Rick Scott as a lobbyist for MCNA Dental. The company reportedly was seeking a “dental carve-out” in the state’s Medicaid to allow coverage for children.
In 2020, two months after Perry quit as then-President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Energy, it was announced that he’d been promoted to vice chairman of MCNA Dental’s board of directors.
BARBARA FEINGOLD AND DR. MELLADO
Feingold sold MCNA to United Health Group in 2020. Several news organizations reported that DeSantis gave the eulogy at Feingold’s funeral.
Mellado became a significant political contributor during DeSantis’s first and second races for governor in 2018 and 2022, when he shoveled $70,000 into the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC. The PAC’s name was changed to Empower Parents PAC shortly before it disbanded in May 2023. In June, the Florida Phoenix reported that as the PAC was shutting down it transferred $82.5 million to DeSantis’s presidential super PAC, Never Back Down.
“Mellado’s connection to the governor’s office comes through Feingold,” said the Republican bundler. “You can go back to DeSantis’s victory night in the 2022 election, in the VIP area at the Tampa Convention Center…I personally witnessed her introducing Mellado to other donors and shepherding him around. Mingling. Barbara ultimately wants Jose [Mellado] on the FAU board of trustees because she wants to be chair of the board. So, she’s trying to build support for that.”
Another Republican said Feingold and Mellado were in frequent contact. “She speaks highly of Jose Mellado and his wife,” he said.
FAU wants to open a dental program. Feingold has reportedly pledged $30 million to make it happen in honor of her late husband.
ECHOES OF PATRONIS’S PAST
Patronis’s involvement in the Operation Tooth Fairy criminal case has echoes of past controversies.
In 2019, Florida’s ex-top banking regulator, Drew Breakspear, told the Tampa Bay Times that Patronis pressured his agency to drop its involvement in a case against a Miami financial adviser after the man, Key Biscayne resident Patrick Dwyer, donated $25,000 to Patronis’s Treasure Florida PAC.
The donation, Dwyer’s first and only to Patronis, was on March 13, 2018. Less than a month later, Dwyer’s lawyer wrote to Patronis to complain that Breakspear’s office “is acting as a mere puppet’ by backing up the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. FINRA was rebuffing Dwyer’s efforts to have millions of dollars in customer complaints against him removed from his record.
On May 3, 2018 Patronis released a letter calling on Breakspear, Florida’s Commissioner of Financial Regulation, to quit. Patronis said he’d lost confidence in him. By the end of the month, Breakspear resigned.
Then there’s what happened with Breakspear’s replacement, Ron Rubin.
Rubin was nominated for the job by Patronis, who was influenced in Rubin’s favor by Jeffrey Feingold, court records show. But Rubin quickly fell out of favor. He was put on leave in May 2019 after an employee filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. In July, days after an Inspector General’s report concluded that Rubin had repeatedly violated harassment policy, DeSantis and the Cabinet, which includes Patronis, fired him.
Questions quickly arose about Patronis’s vetting of Rubin. To make matters worse, Rubin alleged he was wrongly fired due to political corruption by Patronis.
Specifically, Rubin filed a racketeering suit alleging Patronis’s pal, lobbyist R. Paul Mitchell, was part of a “pay to play” scheme. Rubin claimed that Mitchell repeatedly solicited a $1-million campaign contribution from Rubin’s elderly father, real estate developer Walter Rubin, as part of a deal to get his son the job. Rubin claimed he was fired after his father wouldn’t pay up, and because he wouldn’t hire a candidate for general counsel that Patronis and Mitchell wanted.
The suit, in which the only defendant was Mitchell, also alleged that Patronis used $250,000 in state hurricane-relief funds to pay nearly $250,000 to settle a federal sexual harassment filed against him by a former female employee who contended that she lost her job because of a “boy’s club” culture permeated Patronis’s Department of Financial Services.
In August 2022, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper granted a motion for summary judgment, dismissing the case in Mitchell’s favor without the need for a trial. In September of this year, the First District Court of Appeal upheld Cooper’s decision.