Some nine million members and veterans of the nation’s military services receive medical coverage from a U.S. government program called TRICARE.
It’s a system built on trust — making it an easy mark for seasoned South Florida pharmacist Serge Francois, prosecutors say. Francois, 51, stood trial over the past month on charges of fleecing tens of millions from the taxpayer-funded military program to buy the former Broward County mansion of Hollywood megastar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“That trust was abused from moment one,” federal prosecutor Frank Monsour said during closing arguments. “[Francois] would do anything to push the product out the door ... anything to run the bill up to $31 million.”
Late Tuesday, after 12 hours of deliberations, a Miami federal jury found Francois and a former manager of his Pompano Beach-based company, Atlantic Pharmacy, guilty of conspiring to commit healthcare fraud against TRICARE and pay kickbacks to doctors and marketing companies for a steady referral of patients who did not need the costly prescription drugs. Francois was also convicted of money laundering.
Francois, who was called “POTUS” (President of the United States) by fellow workers at Atlantic Pharmacy, was not the only remaining defendant. Also standing trial: Francois’ “chief of staff,” Patrick Tonge, 40, of Southwest Ranches, a former car salesman who managed Atlantic Pharmacy and processed TRICARE claims.
Both defendants are scheduled for sentencing in November before U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles. They face between 10 and 20 years in prison because of the multiple convictions and amount of loss to TRICARE.
According to an indictment, Atlantic Pharmacy billed the government program for $37 million in fraudulent claims for compounded medications such as pain creams that were not necessary and not properly prescribed between 2010 and 2015. TRICARE ended up paying out $31 million in the scheme, which is similar to the Medicare rackets that have plagued South Florida for more than a decade.
With the proceeds, Francois purchased Johnson’s 10,000-square-foot, French-style chateau in Broward’s Southwest Ranches community for $3.6 million in 2015. He bought it from Y100 radio host “Mobile Mike,” who had acquired it from The Rock, a one-time University of Miami football player turned professional wrestler turned Hollywood leading man. Francois also acquired a Rolls-Royce, a Ferrari, a Land Rover, a Lamborghini, a Cadillac Escalade and a Mercedes-Benz.
But since his arrest last November, Francois — deemed a flight risk by a pair of judges — has been detained without bond in a tiny jail cell in downtown Miami, a stark contrast to his six-bedroom, six-bathroom estate on two-plus acres in exclusive Landmark Ranch Estates. Records show he has not paid almost $60,000 in property taxes owed this year. With his conviction, Francois stands to lose his home as well as the luxury cars and other tainted assets.
Francois was one of 14 defendants implicated in the Atlantic Pharmacy case. Almost all of them, including four South Florida doctors, have pleaded guilty.
Francois’ defense attorney, Sean Ellsworth, tried to distance his client from the cast of convicted cooperating witnesses who testified against him, saying the pharmacy owner was completely unaware of the alleged scheme to bilk the federal government. He said Monsour and fellow prosecutor Dan Bernstein took “bits and pieces” of his client’s life and unfairly turned them into a “sinister criminal enterprise.”
Ellsworth said Francois employed three pharmacists and other workers, who were also unaware of the network of marketing companies accused of defrauding TRICARE by paying kickbacks to doctors for patient referrals and drug prescriptions.
“He testified that he was never aware” of the kickback payments, Ellsworth said during closing arguments last Thursday. “They were trying to trick Serge the same way they were trying to trick the government.”
Francois, a U.S. citizen born in Brooklyn and a licensed Florida pharmacist for 20 years, had overcome a previous federal prosecution almost a decade ago.
But this time, Francois could not survive the prosecution’s pile of incriminating evidence, including cooperating witnesses, falsified paperwork and lists of prescription-drug orders with his initials on them.