Feds break up largest Medicare scam in U.S. history
Orlando Bustabad is your typical Medicare crook: As the ringleader of a Miami-Dade pharmacy racket, he submitted $10 million in bogus bills to the taxpayer-funded program and pocketed a small fortune.
He pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy. But before his scheduled sentencing to 14 years in prison, Bustabad fled Miami for Mexico. On the lam for nearly a year, he decided to return last month to face justice.
By the standards of Medicare fraud fugitives, his return wasn’t that unusual, according to the FBI. The agency’s Miami field office is now tracking about 180 Medicare offenders who have fled the country after fleecing the entitlement program — a number that has been rising in recent years. And if any get captured, it’s usually because they’re homesick for family, like Bustabad.
“Many fugitives are caught when they re-enter the United States as they voluntarily turn themselves in after discussions with their defense attorneys,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Mark McCormick, who oversees the healthcare fraud section.
“These individuals normally have strong ties to South Florida,” McCormick said, adding that other fugitives are sometimes brought into custody on a provisional arrest warrant in a foreign country, such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica.
Almost all of the fugitives are Cuban-born immigrants who escape to Cuba, Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries to evade arrest or trial.
Cuba, where dozens of Medicare fraud fugitives from Miami often go, doesn’t assist U.S. authorities at all — despite renewed diplomatic relations during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
McCormick said that overall Medicare fugitive arrests have been flat of late, with the 62-year-old Bustabad among the exceptions.
Bustabad, who was free on bail while awaiting sentencing in December, jilted U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, his defense attorney and federal prosecutors when he didn’t show up for his sentencing hearing on Dec. 8. Instead, he took off for Cancún, Mexico, leaving his 32-year son, Orlando Olver Bustabad, behind bars for the same Medicare crime the father had committed — submitting fraudulent claims for prescription drugs. Bustabad and his son operated nine Miami-Dade pharmacies that fraudulently collected almost $5 milllion in Medicare payments, according to court records. The son was sentenced to 14 years the week before the father was scheduled to be imprisoned for the same term.
Bustabad also left behind his wife, Dalia Hernandez, whom he had married in Cuba.
A few months after Bustabad fled, his wife visited him in Cancún, the seaside resort, in March — only to be indicted herself, after returning to Miami, on similar Medicare prescription-drug charges in June.
Bustabad’s wife was released on bail. But then veteran prosecutor Christopher Clark persuaded another federal judge to detain her after disclosing that the wife had traveled to visit her husband in Cancún while he was wanted in Miami for Medicare fraud.
“Not coincidentally, travel records indicate that following Bustabad’s flight to avoid sentencing, Dalia Hernandez flew to Cancun, Mexico, March 10, 2018, and returned March 28, 2018, presumably having met with her husband,” Clark wrote in a motion to revoke the wife’s bond.
Also, the couple had previously hid in the Dominican Republic for a while because Bustabad became concerned that his Miami-Dade pharmacies were under investigation, Clark said.
U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga ordered the wife’s detention because “she is likely to flee.” The wife pleaded guilty to a fraud conspiracy in early August, just before her husband started his trek back to Miami.
Perhaps compelled by his better nature, Bustabad surrendered to U.S. authorities at the Mexico-Texas border in mid-August to face his own Medicare fraud sentencing in Miami. Now in custody, Bustabad will be sentenced on Friday.
Bustabad’s attorney said it was the son’s plight in prison that motivated him to come back.
“It is my understanding that someone reached out to him saying that if he returned, his son would get some type of benefit,” Bustabad’s attorney, Terence Lenamon, told the Miami Herald. He said the son’s lawyer may have reached out to the father, but that attorney could not be reached for comment.
Lenamon said it is the father’s hope that his son might get his prison sentence reduced, but that decision would be up to Judge Moore. In addition to his own sentencing, Bustabad also faces a new charge for failing to appear for his sentencing.
Unlike Bustabad, most of the fugitives being tracked by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have been hiding for years.
Case in point: Carlos, Jose and Luis Benitez. They fled Miami after they were charged in May 2008 while their indictments were still under seal. They used Cuban passports to travel from Miami to the Dominican Republic, then to Cuba.
The three brothers were charged with defrauding the Medicare program by billing $119 million in false claims for HIV-infusion treatments at 11 Miami-Dade clinics.
The brothers pulled off the scam by hiring crooked doctors with Medicare licenses, hiring Cuban immigrants to register as clinic owners and paying kickbacks to a network of Miami-Dade men with the AIDS virus who had valuable Medicare cards. About 20 defendants were swept up in the brothers’ probe and eventually convicted and sentenced — except Carlos, Jose and Luis Benitez
When the Herald asked the FBI about the latest on the Benitez brothers, the Miami field office responded: “No new comment.”