South Florida

Her Medicare fraud conviction was tossed out. Now Florida therapist wants U.S. to pay.

South Florida therapist Vanja Abreu talks with the Miami Herald at her lawyer’s office in Miami on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017. Abreu, who was convicted at trial along with dozens of others, served 1,029 days in prison before her conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court.
South Florida therapist Vanja Abreu talks with the Miami Herald at her lawyer’s office in Miami on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017. Abreu, who was convicted at trial along with dozens of others, served 1,029 days in prison before her conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

On a mid-February morning, dozens of FBI agents swarmed the Pembroke Pines home of Vanja Abreu with an arrest warrant for the clinical psychologist.

“They woke my children up at gunpoint,” Abreu recalled, saying the agents mixed up her and her 18-year-old daughter. “Imagine my daughter with a gun to her head.”

The agents came to grab Abreu on a sole charge of conspiring with dozens of others to bilk hundreds of millions of dollars from the taxpayer-funded Medicare program. Abreu, who oversaw quality assurance for the American Therapeutic chain of South Florida mental health clinics, was visiting relatives in the Dominican Republic when the raid went down.

Nearly seven years later, Abreu is still living with the scars of that moment. She was convicted at a Miami federal trial in 2012 and sentenced to nine years. But after she spent 1,029 days in a Tallahassee federal prison, an appeals court freed her by throwing out the conviction, concluding that “there is no direct evidence that Dr. Abreu actually knew of or joined in the conspiracy.”

Now, the 54-year-old Abreu is asking the federal judge who oversaw her trial to issue a certificate of innocence so she can qualify under U.S. law for a claim of $150,000 to redress her punishment. Since the 1940s, when the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Statute was adopted by Congress, there have been only 18 reported court decisions on petitions for innocence certificates. But the challenge for Abreu, who uses the word “cheerful” to describe her unwavering optimism, does not faze her.

“I had my family and I had God,” Abreu said Friday, explaining how she survived the horrific ordeal of being indicted by the Justice Department for a crime that a federal appeals court says she did not commit. “I am hoping this [compensation] will make it right. ... It would be a blessing.”

Abreu, dressed in a conservative blue outfit during an interview at the White & Case law firm in downtown Miami, choked up as she recounted growing up in the Dominican Republic, studying for a doctorate in Spain and raising a family in South Florida — only to see her life shattered by the accusation of stealing from the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.

Once the main breadwinner in her family, Abreu owes about $100,000 in student loans from her doctoral studies in Miami — a debt that the mother of two children says she cannot pay off from her job as a mental health therapist and instructor at Broward College. Her lawyers, who are working pro bono, are helping Abreu with her innocence petition as well as her other problems.

Whether U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz — who initially admitted she was “troubled” by the lack of evidence against Abreu but still denied a motion for her acquittal at trial — grants the innocence certificate in the coming weeks remains to be seen.

Justice Department lawyers, in court papers, are treating her petition as if she were still standing trial on the original conspiracy charge. In court papers, prosecutors said the federal appeals court in Atlanta “did not hold that Dr. Abreu was innocent of the crime charged in the indictment or wrongfully prosecuted, but rather that the government had failed to meet its burden of proof at trial.”

The prosecutors presented a summary of the case, highlighting that American Therapeutic’s convicted former president and CEO, Marianella Valera, testified during the seven-week trial that Abreu altered patient files and medical notes to make it look like the chain’s therapy sessions were necessary and provided to Medicare patients. For Valera’s testimony against Abreu and other defendants, the executive’s initial 35-year sentence was reduced to 12 1/2 years.

White & Case attorney Daniel Fridman, a former federal prosecutor in Miami, said the Justice Department continues to distort the record of Abreu’s 2012 trial after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals completely cleared it up three years later.

“Conspiracy was the only charge in the indictment against her,” Fridman said in a court filing with colleagues Dylan Fay and Stephanie Silk. “The Eleventh Circuit did not write that the evidence for this charge was merely insufficient — it wrote that the evidence did not exist at all.”

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Lawyer Daniel Fridman talks with the Miami Herald at his office in Miami on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017. Fridman’s client Vanja Abreu is asking a federal judge to issue a certificate of innocence after her conviction was overturned on appeal. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Indeed, the appellate judges concluded there was “no evidence in the record ... that Dr. Abreu willfully joined or participated” in the conspiracy. In their ruling, they said Justice Department prosecutors “twisted Valera’s testimony out of context.”

Abreu, who was licensed as a mental health counselor and clinical psychologist by the state of Florida, was hired as a program director of American Therapeutic’s Boca Raton clinic in 2005. She so impressed her bosses, CEO Valera and chain owner Lawrence Duran, that they made her the program director of the Miami clinic. She eventually was promoted to corporate director of quality assurance for the six-clinic chain, an ironic title in light of what awaited American Therapeutic and its senior executives. Throughout her tenure, she made between $65,000 and $80,000 a year.

In October 2010, Valera, Duran and a few others in their executive circle were charged with conspiring to fleece $205 million from Medicare by paying kickbacks to patient recruiters and filing false claims for purported therapy treatments. Over an eight-year period, Medicare paid $83 million to American Therapeutic for services that were not necessary or provided to patients, many of whom lived in halfway houses and received kickbacks.

Abreu, who was not charged in the first roundup of suspects, recalled driving to work and being shocked by the news. She said she had always believed American Therapeutic did everything by the book and that most of the mentally ill patients came from hospitals and court referrals.

Abreu tried to run the chain for a few weeks while American Therapeutic’s executives were in custody. “It was a serious business for me,” she said. “I was not doing their fraud.”

But after federal agents seized most of the company’s computers and records, the chain soon shut down. Abreu, out of a job, was hired to teach courses at Nova Southeastern University and Broward College, including a class on ethics.

By February 2011, however, Abreu and 19 others were charged in the massive Medicare fraud case. Visiting relatives in the Dominican Republic, Abreu immediately returned to South Florida to face authorities. The prosecutors “accused me of coaching” American Therapeutic employees to break the law, she said, “but I was coaching them to do their job.”

After her defense attorney, Charles White, argued that there was no trial evidence implicating Abreu in the conspiracy, Seitz, the U.S. district judge, was almost swayed. But in June 2012, Abreu was found guilty by a 12-member jury — along with a pair of South Florida doctors who worked for American Therapeutic and a few other defendants. Prosecutors wanted to put her behind bars immediately without bond. But the judge showed sympathy, especially after Abreu said she had to teach a psychology class later that day at Broward College.

At her sentencing, Seitz gave Abreu nine years in prison, one year shy of the maximum under the conspiracy law — punishment mainly driven by the millions that American Therapeutic stole from the Medicare program.

Abreu said she was always kept in the dark about the criminal activity at the mental health chain and learned about all the wrongdoing only during her trial.

“As I sat through this trial, I learned what the owners did and what happened to some of the patients,” Abreu told the judge at her sentencing in October 2012. “I could not believe it. I was disgusted. I felt betrayed. Actually, I felt taken advantage of. I feel embarrassed. I feel sad.”

Rather than shrivel up while incarcerated, however, Abreu pursued her appeal with the help of Miami attorneys David and Mona Markus — and got back to work. She developed a 52-week GED program for inmates at the federal prison in Tallahassee, where she was held. Her greatest sadness, she said, was not seeing her father before he died while she was in prison.

Now that her conviction has been thrown out by the federal appeals court and she has her freedom, Abreu said she does not feel anger — just regret for what her two children lost without their mother at home for nearly three years. Her daughter, Rosa, 26, stopped pursuing her dream of medical school, and her son, Emanuel, 17, saw his grades slide in high school.

“They were traumatized,” said Abreu, adding that her husband, Erik, is still upset over the government’s prosecution. “In my family, I was always the pillar.”

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