Tag Archives: Fraud

SEC bars Houston investment advisor after guilty plea

The Securities and Exchange Commission has barred Bill Hightower from association with any broker or investment advisor. This follows Mr Hightower’s guilty plea in a federal court in October 2019.

Mr Hightower had been indicted in October 2018 on 13 counts for running a $10 million Ponzi scheme between 2013 and 2018. Mr Hightower, who lives in Bellaire, was the President of Hightower Capital Group, which he founded in 2010. He worked as a broker for UBS Financial Services between 2007 and 2013 and Legacy Asset Securities between 2013 and 2015.



Just before his trial was due to start in October 2019, he pleaded guilty to two counts. One for transferring $900,000 from a trust for an elderly investor and using that money to pay back other investors and fund his personal lifestyle. For the second count, he admitted to selling $800,000 worth of ExxonMobil shares without the investor’s permission. Again he used the money to pay back other investors and fund his personal lifestyle.

As part of the plea agreement, Mr Hightower agreed that investors lost $9.5 million. He also agreed to pay back whatever amount the Court decides as restitution. He is scheduled to be sentenced in July. Mr Hightower could face up to 20 years in prison.

In a separate case, in September 2019, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) ordered UBS to pay $555,000 to an 90-year old woman who claims she was defrauded by Mr Hightower. At that time, he was a broker for UBS.

https://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2020/34-88941.pdf

 

Missouri City Physician to pay $450,000 to resolve fraud allegations

Dr Maaz Abbasi has agreed to pay $450,000 to resolve allegations that he falsely signed home help certifications and plans of care in exchange for money. He also agreed to a three-year exclusion from participation in any federal healthcare program.

Dr Abbasi was connected with Egondu ‘Kate’ Koko. In May 2019, she was sentenced to over 15 years in prison for her role in a $20 million medicare fraud. She owned a number of home health agencies. She admitted to paying illegal kickbacks and bribes to physicians and patients for paperwork necessary for the agencies to bill Medicare.

From 2015 to 2018, Abbasi certified patients for home health services without any knowledge of their medical condition or homebound status. One of the companies owned by Ms Koko paid Abbasi approximately $6,200 in exchange for signing these fraudulent Medicare home health certifications and plans of care. Abbasi also fraudulently signed a fellow physician’s name on these certifications and plans of care without that physician’s authorization, permission or knowledge.

The agreement resolves the allegations without a determination of liability.

https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdtx/pr/missouri-city-physician-pays-nearly-half-million-resolve-illegal-kickback-and-fraud

Texas City man admits to $5 million health care fraud

Ravinder Syal, 57, of Texas City, has admitted to a nearly $5 million fraud in a Corpus Christi federal court.



Between February 2018 and March 2020, he acquired several physician practices in Harris County, Galveston County and Corpus Christi. He handled the administrative functions of the practices including staffing and billing. In each case, he switched the practices to electronic billing and hired an outside billing service, located in India, to handle patient billing.

The Defendant conspired with the outside billing firm to fraudulently bill Medicare, Medicaid, and several private health insurers. He billed for tests and services that were not rendered by a physician or performed during a patient visit.

Syal acted without the knowledge or assistance of the physicians. According to the charge sheet, this included his wife, who is a pediatrician!

He fraudulently billed services amounting to almost $4.9 million. Syal was paid $553,069 as a result of these claims.

Sentencing has been set for August 10. At that time, Syal faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a possible $250,000 maximum fine.

https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdtx/pr/texas-man-admits-role-nearly-5-million-health-care-fraud-scheme

 

Former CEO of Blue Bell charged over listeria outbreak

Blue Bell Creameries has agreed to pay a fine of $19.35 million in relation to the listeria outbreak of 2015. According to the Department of Justice, this is the second largest amount paid in resolution of a food safety matter. Chipotle Mexican Grill holds the record ($25 million).



In a related case, former CEO Paul Kruse has been charged with seven felony counts related to his alleged efforts to conceal from customers what he knew about the listeria contamination.

A few days ago, I reported that the directors of Blue Bell had agreed to a $60 million settlement with its stockholders over allegations that it misled them over the listeria outbreak in 2015. I also noted that no federal charges had been filed.

Kruse family members held CEO position from 1919 to 2017

Blue Bell is based in Brenham, TX and was formed in 1907. In 1919 E.F Kruse took over as General Manager. Various members of the Kruse family held the CEO position continuously until Paul Kruse retired in February 2017.

2015 outbreak

In February 2015, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control found listeria in ‘Blue Bell Great Divide Bar’ and ‘Chocolate Chip Country Cookie’ after a routine sample of products in a local distribution center that were manufactured in Brenham. The following month Kansas authorities identified 5 hospital patients with listeria who had eaten “Scoops” ice cream made in Brenham. They also found listeria in products made in Oklahoma.

2011 cover-up

According to the indictment, in early 2011, the employees in the Blue Bell quality control department found samples with high levels of coliform bacteria. Although coliforms do not normally cause serious illness, their presence suggests other pathogens such as listeria may be present. In April 2011 Mr Kruse ordered the quality control employee to stop sending samples to an outside laboratory that was testing for listeria. Two samples, that were sent to the lab before Mr Kruse gave the order, came back positive for listeria. It is alleged that Mr Kruse told the employee to destroy records of the presumptive positive tests.

2015 cover-up

After the February 2015 positive tests, it is alleged that Mr Kruse instructed Blue Bell driver salesmen to remove from stores the Great Divide Bar and the Chocolate Chip Country Cookie products. Furthermore it is alleged that Mr Kruse rejected sending out a draft press release acknowledging the presence of listeria. Instead he changed the wording to an ‘issue discovered with one of our manufacturing machines’.

On each count, Mr Kruse faces a maximum sentence of 20 years and a fine of $250,000.

https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/blue-bell-creameries-agrees-plead-guilty-and-pay-1935-million-ice-cream-listeria

Kruse indictment

SEC alleges that Houston man conned the conmen

The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged two Kansas-based individuals with defrauding investors of over $3.6 million in connection with an oil and gas equipment scheme.



In February 2019 Phillip Hudnall and Todd Esh co-founded BirdDog Oil Equipment to raise funds from investors for the purported purchase and sale of refurbished oil and gas equipment. They convinced 12 investors in 5 states to invest $3.6 million in promissory notes issued by BirdDog.

The promissory note provided for a 30% return to the investor over the nine-month term of the note. The note assured investors that Hudnall had experience of completing transactions of this type. He did not.

Use of funds raised

Instead of using the money to buy and refurbish oilfield equipment, the SEC alleges that Hudnall used $1.7 million of co-mingled funds to buy 79 acres of land in Colorado. He also used $900,000 to make Ponzi-type payments to investors in prior, unrelated investments that Hudnall had orchestrated. Hudnall also used $450,000 of investor funds to buy himself a $99,000 BMW X7 and $24,000 of tickets for local sporting events.

In June 2019 Hudnall allegedly duped a Pittsburgh bank into giving him a $555,000 loan by creating a fake purchase order from a large oilfield services company. He used most of the funds to pay off two investors who were demanding their money back.

Nguyen dupes the fraudsters

Hudnall and Esh only made one attempt to use the investor funds as promised. Between February and June 2019, they transferred $1.2 million to Duc ‘Doug’ Nguyen’, a 56 year-old man living in Houston. Nguyen told Hudnall and Esh that he had procured oilfield equipment from a major oil company and had an end-buyer lined up to buy the equipment once it was refurbished.

Nguyen instead gambled away $615,000 of the money in Las Vegas. He also gave over $85,000 to friends and family. $21,000 was used to buy a new car (presumably not a BMW).

Nguyen has not been charged in this case. Rather he is a ‘relief defendant’. That’s a term for someone who has received ill-gotten funds as a result of the illegal acts of the other named defendants. A relief defendant is typically named because the plaintiff(s) seeks injunctive relief to protect the sought funds or assets and apply them to any eventual recovery in the case.

https://www.sec.gov/litigation/litreleases/2020/lr24803.htm

Rice University to pay $3.7 million to resolve fraud allegations

Rice University has agreed to pay the Federal Government more than $3.7 million to resolve claims that it improperly charged the National Science Foundation (NSF) research and development awards.

As of March 2020, Rice had 215 active NSF research grants. The funds support basic research. Back in 2016, authorities began an investigation of Rice’s suspected misuse of NSF grant funds.

Specifically, Rice allegedly budgeted for graduate student stipends in its research grant proposals. However, it then used a portion of the money to pay the students to perform teaching duties unrelated to the NSF awards. From November 2006 to September 2018, Rice knowingly engaged in a pattern and practice of improperly charging graduate students’ stipends, tuition remission and related facilities and administrative charges to NSF awards.

To settle the allegations, Rice has agreed to pay $$3,754,186. That’s double the loss to the United States.

https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdtx/pr/rice-university-pays-resolve-claims-it-defrauded-federal-grant-program

SEC charges former Houston Pastor with fraud

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has charged Larry Leonard II and his wife, Shuwana Leonard, with defrauding hundreds of retail investors.

Leonard is a businessman and former pastor who lives in Houston. He also owns the Houston Red Storm, a semi-pro team that’s part of the American Basketball Association (ABA).

Together with his wife, it is alleged that, between March 2017 and December 2018, the Leonards targeted investors in the African-American community with three separate fraudulent offerings. They raised $487,000 from over 500 investors.

The first offering sold bogus stock certificates in a company that bottled and sold alkaline water. The second offering was to sell a valueless cryptocurrency, that Leonard falsely claimed was backed by the water products. The last offering raised funds for a non-existent bitcoin mining investment.

Leonard told investors that the funds raised from the stock sales would be used to improve the water products and to take the company public. Instead, most of the funds raised were used to pay personal expenses of the Leonard family.

The SEC seeks permanent injunctions and disgorgement of the allegedly ill-gotten gains. It also seeks civil penalties.

https://www.sec.gov/litigation/litreleases/2020/lr24787.htm

Woodlands Physician group pays $1.2 million to resolve false billing claims

Millennium Physicians Association has paid the US $1,248,964 to resolve claims that they falsely billed the Medicare program for sleep studies.

Millennium is based in The Woodlands and owns and operates two sleep centers in the Houston area doing business as Millennium Respiratory & Sleep Disorder Specialists.

The investigation began following the Jan. 4, 2018, filing of a whistleblower lawsuit. Millennium employed the whistleblower who alleged the company conducted sleep studies without the presence of properly credentialed technicians.

Medicare rules and guidelines require that properly-trained and certified sleep technicians administer sleep studies. However, the investigation revealed that from Jan. 8, 2015, through March 13, 2019, Millennium improperly billed and received payment for sleep tests when they did not have the required personnel present.

Medicare rules and guidelines also require facilities to be accredited or certified by the America Academy of Sleep Medicine, Joint Commission or Accreditation Commission for Health Care Inc. Millennium self-reported that from 2011 through 2019, two of its sleep test facilities did not have such accreditation or certification.

The whistleblower will receive $187,000 as a result of the settlement.

The settlement resolved the claims without a determination of liability.

https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdtx/pr/physicians-group-pays-over-1m-resolve-false-billing-claims

Famous Houston pastor pleads guilty to $3.5 million fraud

Kirbyjon Caldwell, a famous Houston pastor, has pleaded guilty to defrauding investors of approximately $3.5 million.



Mr Caldwell built up Windsor Village United Methodist Church in SW Houston into a 14,000 member mega church and was a spiritual advisor to President George W Bush. He offered the benediction at both his inaugurations and officiated at the wedding of President Bush’s daughter, Jenna.

Former Investment Banker

Caldwell is a former director at Continental Airlines (until 2011) and NRG Energy (he left the board one month after he was indicted in 2018).  He is also a minority owner in the Houston Texans. Prior to becoming a pastor he was an investment banker on Wall Street and worked for a bond firm in Houston.

The fraud scheme

Caldwell was charged along with Gregory Smith, a Shreveport-based investment advisor. Smith pleaded guilty in July 2019.

Between April 2013 and August 2014, Caldwell and Smith raised $3,488,500 from 29 investors through a fraudulent offer and sale of various pre-1949 Chinese bonds. Caldwell and Smith falsely represented to these investors that the bonds were safe, risk-free, worth tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars and could be sold to third parties. In reality, the bonds have no investment value.

The Chinese government doesn’t recognize the validity of bonds issued prior to the communist takeover of 1949. It has never paid out on any of these bonds, except once in 1987. As part of the negotiations over Hong Kong, the Brits received 36 cents on the dollar. The US courts have generally said that the People’s Republic of China can assert sovereign immunity in not paying these debts.

Caldwell kept approximately $0.9 million and used it to pay down personal loans, mortgages and credit cards. Smith received $1.1 million of the total monies raised.

Sentencing

Caldwell could get seven years in prison. He also faces a fine up to $250,000 and up to three years of supervised release. Sentencing is set for July 22, 2020.

https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdla/pr/houston-texas-pastor-pleads-guilty-his-role-multimillion-dollar-investment-scheme

Houston Pharmacist guilty of $21 million fraud

George Tompkins, 75, of Houston, has been found guilty of charges related to health care fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. After a six-day trial, the jury took less than two hours to convict him of all charges (14 counts in all).



Tompkins owned Piney Point Pharmacy on Fondren Road in west Houston. According to evidence presented a trial, Tompkins billed the Federal Employees’ Compensation (FECA) program approximately $21.8 million for medically unnecessary compound gels and creams that were predicated on illegal kickback payments, which were disguised as legitimate marketing expenses.

The scheme began around September 2009 and continued through approximately September 2016. Of the $21.8 million billed, the Department of Labor paid out $11.7 million.  Tompkins referred to himself as the “Compound King”.

His wife, Marlene, was the Secretary and Treasurer of the business. She pleaded guilty in January 2020 and is awaiting sentencing. Anoop Chaturvedi, a legal permanent resident from India, was also charged. He is a fugitive and there is a warrant for his arrest.

Sentencing for Tompkins is set for May 27. He faces up to 20 years for the money laundering charges and 10 years for the other counts.

https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/compound-king-convicted-21-million-health-care-fraud-scheme