Twenty years ago, Robert Allen Lopez pleaded guilty to a scheme to swindle $4.2 million from Medicare while lying to the taxpayer-funded program that his Miami businesses were supplying liquid nutritional supplements to ailing patients.
But rather than show up for judgment day on his fraud conviction in early 1996, Allen headed south.
All this time, he bounced around as a fugitive in Mexico, Colombia, Panama and Nicaragua, using a fake name. But it was in the last country where federal investigators finally tracked him down, bringing the 49-year-old Lopez back to Miami on Saturday.
Lopez, a U.S. citizen born in Chicago, was arrested in November by Nicaraguan authorities who were going to turn him over to the U.S. Marshals Service the following month, but his deportation was delayed until now. Lopez — who had pleaded guilty to Medicare fraud and was later charged as a fugitive from justice for failing to appear for sentencing before U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King — will soon be encountering that same jurist because he’s still on the bench.
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“Lopez’s apprehension sends a strong message to criminals around the globe that it’s not a matter if we find you, it’s when,” said Amos Rojas Jr., the U.S. Marshal in Miami.
In the early 1990s, Lopez operated 11 Miami-area nutritional supplement companies with partner Johny Hazbun, according to federal agents with the Department of Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General. They asserted that Lopez and his co-conspirators were actually in the business of defrauding the U.S. government.
The partners collected $1.7 million in Medicare payments for “medically unnecessary” liquid nutritional supplements that they falsely “represented” as being provided to patients, according to federal court records. Four other defendants also collaborated with Lopez and Hazbun, who arranged to have their associates withdraw Medicare payments from bank accounts in amounts less than $10,000 to avoid triggering financial reporting requirements, records show.
Hazbun, who had also been designated as a fugitive, was eventually convicted and received a probationary sentence in Miami federal court more than a decade ago. The other four defendants also pleaded guilty and were given probationary sentences.
Lopez, who had fled Miami with his two children but left his wife behind, is likely to face stiffer punishment.
Shimon Richmond, special agent in charge of HHS-Office of Inspector General in Miami, said that “even after 20 years on the run, justice can and will be served.”
Lopez’s status as a one-time fugitive isn’t unusual among Medicare fraud defendants in South Florida, where billions of dollars have been stolen from the federal health insurance program. At any given time, there are as many as 150 defendants who have been convicted or are facing charges for fleecing millions from Medicare who flee to Cuba, Mexico and other Latin American countries.
What set Lopez apart was that he was on the lam for so long — ever since he faced a prison term up to five years in February 1996 for conspiring with Hazbun and the others to bilk the federal healthcare program for the elderly and disabled.
The FBI has maintained a list of at least 90 South Florida Medicare fraud fugitives identified by name, compiled by Special Agent Bryan Piper. The bureau, assisted by HHS-Office of Inspector General, also has a list of an additional 90 defendants who have been charged by sealed indictment, but also are suspected of having fled the region. As a result, they are unaware they are wanted in Miami, and agents don't want to tip them off.
So far, more than 30 fugitives have been busted. Most South Florida fugitives typically get caught while they are on the lam in foreign nations, or when they return to this country through Miami International Airport.