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The case that won’t die: DeSantis joins Patronis in boosting fortunes of big contributor in ‘Tooth Fairy’ case

tooth fairy
Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, and Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org

Operation Tooth Fairy, the insurance fraud case cooked up by Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis that Miami-Dade prosecutors refused to prosecute, has been quietly reanimated and retargeted by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

And like Patronis, DeSantis used his position to take official action that boosted the $24.6-million corporate takeover quest of a wealthy contributor who has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into the governor’s political war chest.

The governor acted March 27 issuing an executive order assigning a criminal investigation of Jacksonville dentist Dr. Howard Fetner to Brian Kramer, the Gainesville-based state attorney for Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit. The order says the allegations against Fetner are for “submitting false and fraudulent insurance claims, schemes to defraud, criminal use of personal identification information, and grand theft.”

tooth fairy
Dr. Jose Mellado and Dr. Ania Cabrerizo

Fetner owns AC Ortho PLLC, a Hialeah-based pediatric dental practice previously owned by entrepreneurial dentists Dr. Jose Mellado, a periodontist, and his wife, Dr. Ania Cabrerizo.

In February 2020, the couple sold the non-clinical assets of their two-office pediatric dental practice to the Miami venture capital firm Boyne Capital for $24.6-million, plus a 33 percent stake in a new office management firm, ACPDO Management.  Mellado and Cabrerizo would continue to run the clinical side of the business, providing dental services to children, most of whom were Medicaid patients.

A DEAL GONE SOUR

A bitter rift soon followed. Dr. Fetner, a relative of one of Boyne Capital’s partners, was brought in by Boyne as a “friendly owner” because only licensed dentists can own a dental practice. Mellado and Cabrerizo were fired for allegedly “intentionally disruptive, unprofessional and toxic behavior” that violated various obligations they’d agreed to as part of the deal, court records say.

As a result, the couple lost their equity interests in their practices in April 2022. They are now suing Fetner, ACPDO, Boyne Capital and others in Miami-Dade Circuit Court’s Complex Business Litigation Division seeking to take back ownership of their practices. Win or lose, they will keep the $24.6 million they were paid.

It is that contentious lawsuit, filed in July 2022, that appears to be behind Mellado and Cabrerizo’s efforts to have Fetner and others affiliated with ACPDO Management criminally prosecuted for insurance fraud. A parallel effort is underway by Mellado, chairman of the Florida Board of Dentistry, and others to pressure regulators to revoke Fetner’s dental license. 

tooth fairy
Barbara Feingold

Mellado did not respond to a Florida Bulldog request for comment.

Mellado has twice tried and failed to obtain such a prosecution. In November, Florida Bulldog reported how, after receiving a fraud complaint by Cabrerizo and more than $50,000 in contributions to Patronis’s Treasure Florida PAC ($50,000 from Mellado’s long-time friend and business associate and wealthy Republican stalwart Barbara Feingold and $2,000 from Mellado on the same day, Sept. 2, 2022) Patronis’s detectives began investigating.

‘PAY TO PROSECUTE’

In April 2023, the CFO’s insurance fraud office arrested five employees of One Care Pediatric Dental – the trade name for ACPDO Management. Patronis, a potential candidate for governor next year, hyped “The Tooth Fairy Heist,” as his investigators dubbed it, in a press release declaring the bust to be of a “$1.3 million insurance fraud scheme” that could land anyone convicted in prison for “up to 30 years.”

Defense lawyers for the arrested would later call it “pay to prosecute.”

Within days, lawyers for Mellado and Cabrerizo sought to use the Tooth Fairy arrests in the civil lawsuit as the basis for a motion seeking to regain immediate ownership of ACPDO. (The tactic was used again In April 2024 when DeSantis’s order disclosing the existence of a criminal probe of Fetner was cited to ask Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Lisa Walsh to enter a writ of attachment for Fetner’s stock in their former dental practices before the case is even decided.)

But that smear strategy, and their hopes for a quick takeback, fizzled one month later when the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office determined there was no fraud and that no one had lost any money.

Detective Mario Fajardo

Typically, that would be the end of it. But Patronis’s lead insurance fraud Mario Fajardo took the unusual step of shopping Tooth Fairy to the Attorney General’s Office of Statewide Prosecution (OSP). That didn’t go well, either. Florida Bulldog has obtained a Sept. 20, 2023 letter from Assistant Statewide Prosecutor James Harris to Fajardo refusing to take the case.

“Present are legal and factual issues that would prevent OSP from moving forward in good faith,” Harris wrote, adding his review of the Miami-Dade prosecutor’s memo declining Tooth Fairy “found very well researched legal and factual issues as to why they ended prosecution.”

MELLADO’S CONTRIBUTIONS TO DESANTIS

Now, the governor has teed up a third shot for Mellado and Cabrerizo to secure a prosecution by State Attorney Brian Kramer. This time the target is Fetner.

DeSantis did so at the request of Jacksonville area State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who had received a complaint about Fetner but said her office had a conflict because employees there had a friendship with Fetner or had sought dental care from one of his relatives.

Dr. Howard Fetner

The governor’s executive assignment authority of cases from one State Attorney’s Office to another are routine when a prosecutor has declared a conflict. But this case is not routine. It has the hallmarks of influence with corresponding political fingerprints all over it.

Mellado is one of the governor’s biggest supporters, contributing in excess of $70,000 to DeSantis’s political campaigns, state records show.

During DeSantis’s first run for governor in 2018, Mellado donated $10,000 to his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis. In November 2020, DeSantis appointed Mellado to his four-year term on the Florida Board of Dentistry, which he now chairs.

Mellado upped his giving significantly in 2021 and 2022, contributing $60,000 more to Friends of Ron DeSantis – which in 2023 was renamed Empower Parents. In May 2023 Mellado also kicked in $3,300 to DeSantis’s federal Restore Our Nation (RONPAC).

A LAWYER WITH TIES TO DESANTIS, RICK SCOTT

Then there is the involvement of Tallahassee attorney William Spicola. On Feb. 6, 2024 Spicola sent a letter to Jacksonville State Attorney Nelson making similar criminal accusations that had already flopped twice with prosecutors. Specifically, he accused Fetner, ACPDO Management “and others” of involvement in a $2.3-million Medicaid fraud scheme.

Attorney William Spicola

Spicola isn’t your garden variety lawyer. A former prosecutor, he was Rick Scott’s general counsel when the Republican senator was Florida’s governor.

Spicola also has ties to Gov. DeSantis. In 2019, DeSantis appointed Spicola to the statewide Judges of Compensation Claims Judicial Nominating Commission. Two years later, he named Spicola to the Second Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission for a term that ends July 1, 2024.

In his letter to Nelson, Spicola wrote that he was representing a trio of dentists – Christina Puig, Alejandra Sanchez and Dayrys Tejeda – who like Mellado and Cabrerizo contend they were wrongly fired by Fetner in December 2022. The trio said they got the ax for reporting that ACPDO was fraudulently using their professional billing codes – an accusation previously debunked by Miami-Dade prosecutors.

Two months earlier, Spicola had sent a letter with essentially the same fraud allegations against Fetner to Andrew Sheeran, general counsel for the Agency for Health Care Administration. The letter sought to initiate a regulatory action under the state’s False Claims Act.

The status of that claim is not known. There are, however, several regulatory matters initiated by Mellado that are pending against Fetner, including a fraud complaint to Kelly Bennett, ACHA’s Medicaid Program Integrity Chief.

COMPLAINTS TO REGULATORS

Likewise another of Mellado and Cabrerizo’s attorneys, Tallahassee’s Edwin Bayo, submitted fraud complaints about Fetner to the Florida Department of Health and to the Board of Dentistry.

Attorneys Ginger Barry Boyd and Edwin Bayo

The department’s investigation is pending. But the dental board is preparing to meet to determine whether Fetner’s license should be revoked for violating various statutes and professional standards. It was initially scheduled to meet on May 10, but that was the day tornadoes struck Tallahassee and the meeting was canceled.

On April 30 one of Fetner’s lawyers, Ginger Barry Boyd of Tallahassee had filed an emergency petition to disqualify members of the dentistry board’s probable cause panel in the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

Mellado, the board’s chair, recused himself from the board’s determination but “that is insufficient,” Boyd wrote.

“Whether it be another chess piece in the civil lawsuit, or simply a vendetta against Dr. Fetner, the entire disciplinary licensure process related to the investigation has been orchestrated by Board Chair Mellado and has been tainted. As such, each member of the Probable Cause Panel has been tainted…”

If the panel were to find probable cause and issue an administrative complaint against Fetner, Mellado “can leverage that administrative complaint in the civil litigation to take back ownership of the [dental practices] and obtain a monetary windfall,” Boyd wrote.

The appellate court dismissed Fetner’s petition the day after it was filed without explanation.

On May 23, the Tallahassee nonprofit anti-corruption watchdog group Integrity Florida issued a press release citing to Florida Bulldog and several right-wing “news” organizations that later wrote about Patronis’s “apparently tarnished” Tooth Fairy investigation. Integrity Florida called for a probe by “independent professionals outside the Department of Financial Services” appointed by Attorney General Ashley Moody or Gov. DeSantis.

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Latest comments

  • Our Republican leadership is clearly corrupt and catering to big money.

  • DeSantis’ weaponized justice – lawfare:

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2024/06/03/18866972.php

  • Thank you for your reporting on this information. Those of us that have been affected by the false allegations and ongoing investigations are devastated and heartbroken that the care we proudly provide to the underserved children of south Florida is being needlessly disrupted. Bringing these abuses of power and bureaucracy to light is the only hope we have of any justice being served. Sincerest gratitude!

  • Its clear why this turd Desantis isnt dealing with Greg Toney. Hes too busy pulling these azznine stunts. While Toney continues to laugh at the system, grab his ballz, lie like the crinimal he is, and exploit the system for everythig its worth. I throw up in my mouth every day I know that hes not in prison. Its mind boggling to me how incredibly stupid the average voter is.

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