Crime

He devoted career to helping mentally ill defendants. Now, he’s going to prison for fraud.

Sam Konell, a longtime liasion between mental-health clinics and Miami-Dade’s criminal court, was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison for participating in Medicare fraud.
Sam Konell, a longtime liasion between mental-health clinics and Miami-Dade’s criminal court, was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison for participating in Medicare fraud. Miami Herald

A former drug addict who reformed his life, Sam Konell became a fixture at Miami’s criminal courthouse for decades, lobbying judges to get treatment for mentally ill defendants — and to keep them out of jail.

So it was with tragic irony that Konell on Thursday found himself before a judge yet again. This time, he was convicted of illegally steering state-court defendants to a corrupt clinic, which in turned fraudulently billed Medicare for more than $63 million.

Konell rattled off decades of his achievements: counseling traumatized Vietnam veterans, managing services for assisted living facilities, creating day therapy programs across Miami-Dade County.

“I’m asking for leniency for all the good I’ve done for the mentally ill in this county,” Konell said.

U.S. Judge Jose Martinez was unswayed. “I don’t question you’ve done a lot of good,” the judge said. “There’s a reason South Florida is the fraud capital of the world and part of the reason is right in front me. ... You’re going to have to be part of the deterrent.”

The 70-year-old Konell was sentenced to five years in prison, plus three years of supervised release. And he must pay back a staggering $9.9 million in restitution. “You’re going to be 700 years old before you pay it back,” Martinez noted grimly.

The arrest and conviction of Konell generated few headlines, but was a stunner among lawyers and mental-health professionals at Miami-Dade’s state criminal courthouse.

He still had supporters. Two defense lawyers — not representing Konell — spoke on his behalf. In letters, so did a former high-ranking Miami-Dade assistant public defender and a sitting Miami-Dade judge.

Konell was known as the dean of patient brokers at Miami’s courthouse. He was a liaison for Hialeah’s Southern Winds Hospital for mental-health treatment — an important task in a county where an estimated 58 percent of criminal-court defendants suffer from a mental illness.

He worked at the courthouse during the days of the Miami-Dade County Jail’s ninth-floor psychiatric ward, which became notorious for miserable conditions and care. The ward has since been shuttered and mental-health services moved to better facilities at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.

The well-chronicled problems with the warehousing of the mentally ill in jails have also led to efforts to build a mental-health diversion facility in Miami-Dade.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that he became an asset to virtually every judge in the building,” Miami-Dade Judge Deborah White-Labora, who formerly headed the county’s lauded drug court, wrote in a letter of support. “He also helped hundreds, if not thousands, of mentally ill defendants.”

Veterans Judge TC
Miami-Dade County Judge Deborah White-Labora wrote a letter of support for Sam Konell, the patient broker who was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison for Medicare fraud TIM CHAPMAN Miami Herald File

Konell’s role, however, was not always applauded.

Patient brokers have been criticized for only taking clients who were eligible for government benefits, in essence enriching themselves off the misery of the accused, only to jettison back to jail or the streets when the money runs out.

Miami-Dade’s circuit court has declined to identify the cases Konell worked on — and there are hundreds of them — because of the federal investigation.

Mental-heath advocate Pete Earley, who wrote a book on how the criminal-justice system treats mentally ill defendants, recalls seeing Konell at the county jail, going from cell to cell signing up inmates to be placed in an outside clinic.

“He had free run of the place,” recalled Earley, whose book “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness” included several pages on Konell and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2007.

“Everyone in the jail knew what he was doing. They would refer to the prisoners as one of Sam’s boys. ... When I spoke to court officials about it, everyone knew what was happening but justified what he was doing by saying that at least the inmates got out of the ninth floor for a few weeks.”

He added: “It made me uncomfortable because you’re basically using people as a cash cow. The fact that he is pleading guilty shows it was all about the money.”

What the Miami-Dade state court judges didn’t know was that Konell was getting illegal payments from a corrupt clinic called Greater Miami Behavioral Healthcare Center, which fraudulently billed the Medicare system for more than $63 million.

Konell got a flat monthly rate based on the number of patients he referred to Greater Miami, telling judges his clients needed hospital services — “when in reality such services were not always needed, he admitted,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In all, Greater Miami paid him an extra $432,829 over six years, aside from his regular salary at Southern Winds, authorities said.

The clients referred to Greater Miami cost taxpayers between $9.5 million and $25 million in bogus claims between 2006 and 2012. In all, 11 others pleaded guilty for their role in the scheme, including the clinic’s owners, three administrators and seven patient brokers.

Konell, of Boca Raton, was arrested in June 2017. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and receive healthcare kickbacks.

Federal prosecutor Leslie Wright asked for five years in prison “as a message” to other patient brokers in court. She said: “The defendant found a hole in the state court system and exploited and used these individuals to line his own pockets.”

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