“Every fraud is about the appearance of legitimacy,” Justice Department lawyer Jennifer Saulino told a 12-person jury in Miami federal court. “The evidence will show that they worked hard to make this scheme look legitimate.” And so began one of the nation’s biggest healthcare fraud trials, in which seven defendants who mostly worked on the professional side of American Therapeutic Corp. were portrayed as common thieves bilking the taxpayer-funded Medicare program. Prosecutors said the elaborate racket enabled American Therapeutic to bill the federal government $205 million for group therapy sessions, purportedly to treat thousands of patients who they say faked depression, schizophrenia or bipolar conditions. Many also suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and could not have possibly benefited from the treatments, prosecutors said.
But their defense attorneys painted a starkly different picture of the physicians, saying the business side of American Therapeutic — including four top executives who have already been convicted of Medicare fraud — kept the physicians in the dark. The executives collaborated to recruit patients from assisted-living facilities and halfway houses by paying the residential operators kickbacks in cash-filled envelopes. Then they coached the patients on how to fake mental illness to trick the doctors, the defense lawyers said. “When Dr. Willner worked at American Therapeutic, he didn’t know the fraud was going on,” attorney Sam Rabin told the jurors. “Dr. Willner was one of the people the fraud was hidden from.” Rabin said that Willner worked part-time at two Broward County clinics for American Therapeutic, visiting them once or twice a week as he interacted with his team of psychiatric nurses and others. Ayala’s defense lawyer, Jose Quiñon, said his client worked part-time at American Therapeutic’s main clinic in downtown Miami, visiting the facility once a week. Quiñon said the physician was unaware of the corruption carried out by the company’s top executives. Both Quiñon and Rabin told the jurors to be skeptical about the Justice Department’s key witnesses, especially American Therapeutic’s former chief executive officer, Marianella Valera, who was the girlfriend of the company’s one-time owner, Lawrence Duran.I heard that the openings by Saulino, Quinon and Rabin were all very powerful.
I happened to be in court this morning and saw Mike Tein give his opening, which was great. Extremely moving and to the point. One of the hard parts about giving opening in a lengthy trial with lots of defendants is keeping the jurors interested. Tein kept the jury interested and got his theme across well -- I was on the edge of my seat. If you get a chance, you should get over to the courtroom and watch some great lawyering on both sides.