FEDERAL COURT

3 Miami-Dade family members get long prison terms in multimillion-dollar Medicare fraud case

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

About 25 relatives and friends packed a federal courtroom Friday to support three members of a Miami-Dade family convicted of running a mental health clinic to steal millions from Medicare.

Almost all of them openly cried for clinic owner Antonio Macli, 73, and his two grown children — son Jorge Macli, 41, the company’s operating officer, and daughter Sandra Huarte, 49, the bookkeeper. Their clinic was named Biscayne Milieu.

Despite their tears, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola sentenced Antonio Macli to 30 years, Jorge Macli to 25 years and Huarte to about 22 years in prison. The trio used their Miami Gardens clinic to steal more than $11 million from the taxpayer-funded federal program for the elderly and disabled.

Scola reminded the defendants that their crime — in the country’s healthcare fraud capital — was multifaceted: They ripped off Medicare, preyed on vulnerable patients with substance abuse problems who weren’t necessarily mentally ill and ruined the lives of some clinic employees who went to work there with good intentions.

Scola also scolded the father for dragging his family into the corrupt clinic.

“You got your children involved, and you can look behind you and see the devastating impact that has had,’’ Scola said, referring to the sobbing relatives and friends.

Last summer, a jury convicted the three family members of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud by submitting $57 million in bogus bills for mental health services that were not provided or needed between 2007 and 2011, according to prosecutors.

Nearly 1,100 patients attended the clinic for purported therapy to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other conditions.

The jury in the case also convicted five other people, including the clinic’s medical director, Dr. Gary Kushner, 72, a psychiatrist from Plantation, who was sentenced last month to 12 years in prison by Scola.

Before trial, 20 other defendants who had worked at the clinic pleaded guilty.

“The culture of fraud permeated this place from top to bottom,’’ Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Davis told the judge.

Jorge Macli’s defense attorney, Mel Black, differed with the prosecutor, saying: “You cannot, from the evidence, say that they have proven it was top-to-bottom fraud.”

His client — the only defendant to speak at the hearing — said he had been miscast by the prosecution.

“It breaks my heart that people are painting me as a cold person who only cares about money,” Jorge Macli said.

“I know in my heart and soul that I am not an evil man.”

Antonio Macli’s attorney, Rene Sotorrio, described his client as a “Horatio Alger” figure who brought his family from Argentina to South Florida for a better life.

Sotorrio said Macli worked hard and instilled good values in his children, challenging the accusation that he recruited them into a criminal enterprise.

Huarte’s lawyer, Bruce Alter, said his client’s role as the clinic’s bookkeeper was small in the overall scheme, saying her “punishment is so out of line with reality.”

But the judge mostly sided with the prosecution’s dark depiction of the family members and their crime.

After the nearly two-month trial, the trio was found guilty of conspiring to pay kickbacks to patient recruiters who supplied their clinic with Medicare beneficiaries living primarily at halfway houses in South Florida.

They included many with substance-abuse problems who did not meet Medicare’s eligibility requirements, said Davis, who worked on the case with prosecutors Marlene Rodriguez and James Hayes.

“These defendants preyed on scores of vulnerable people,” Davis said.

Some of the patients with drug or alcohol addictions were lured from out of state with promises of a roof over their heads.

Once they arrived, with their valuable Medicare cards in hand, they would be squeezed into Broward and Miami-Dade halfway houses and steered to Biscayne Milieu’s purported mental health programs, according to prosecutors.

If they dropped out of the group therapy sessions, they would lose their housing.

A social worker at Biscayne Milieu also assisted patients seeking U.S. citizenship by completing immigration forms falsely indicating they suffered from mental illnesses.

That enabled the patients to avoid taking the citizenship test, prosecutors said.

Also convicted of healthcare fraud at trial: Rafael Alalu, a clinical therapist, and Jacqueline Moran, who handled the company’s Medicare billing.

In December, Alalu, 47, of Miami, was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.

According to trial evidence, the clinic’s executives, along with Kushner and Alalu, fabricated records, prescriptions and certifications to make it appear that ineligible patients had received legitimate mental health treatment.

Two patient recruiters, Anthony Roberts and Derek Alexander, were also found guilty of participating in the scheme by seeking and accepting kickbacks in exchange for sending patients to the Biscayne Milieu clinic in an office park off the Palmetto Expressway.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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