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March 17, 2014

You be the federal sentencing judge: months, years or decades in prison for notable Medicaid fraudsters?

White-collar crimes, especially when there are few if any individual victims, oft raise especially tough and dynamic issues concerning how to weigh and balance offense- and offender-related sentencing consideration. These realities seem especially true in an interesting federal health care fraud case from South Carolina described in this local article. The piece is headlined "As Medicaid fraud sentencing nears, SC youth agency founder seeks leniency so he can be positive role model for his children," and here are excerpts:

The founder of the Helping Hands Youth and Family Services agency, guilty of bilking the federal Medicaid program for millions of dollars, has asked a federal judge for leniency when he is sentenced Wednesday for six felony charges related to health care fraud.

Truman Lewis — who founded the for-profit youth mentoring agency that had offices in Conway, Georgetown, Columbia and Rock Hill — said in court documents that he still maintains his innocence and deserves no more than a six-month prison sentence.

Lewis and his brother, Norman Lewis, were found guilty in an August jury trial of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and four counts of wire fraud.  They each face up to 10 years in prison for committing health care fraud and up to 20 years in prison for the money laundering and wire fraud charges. Both men will be sentenced Wednesday in Charleston by Judge Richard Gergel.

The jury found that the Lewises billed Medicaid for $8.9 million — much of it fraudulent  — over a nearly two-year period starting in 2009, and then used the money to buy luxury cars, a beachfront condominium and homes.  At the time of their indictment in June 2012, the Lewises had $1 million in certificates of deposit and bank accounts.  The jury determined that all of those assets can be seized to help pay back the money taken through fraudulent billings.

Helping Hands — which was supposed to provide mentoring services to low-income children with family or behavioral problems — had hundreds of youth clients in Horry and Georgetown counties.  Those clients were referred to the agency by the state’s Department of Social Services and area school officials, even though the agency’s counselors were not licensed.

Truman Lewis, in a court document filed on Friday, said he “may have made mistakes along the way but does not believe he did so with a malevolent intent and is wanting to work his way out of this position he finds himself in.”

At age 35, Truman Lewis is the oldest of 14 siblings who were “sometimes forced to live on food stamps,” the court document states, adding that the youth mentoring agency he founded allowed him “to pave the way for his siblings in school and work to show them there was a way out of poverty.”  Truman Lewis said he never should have faced criminal charges because his agency had entered into a repayment plan with state officials who oversee the Medicaid program before any charges were filed.  He said a long prison sentence would be detrimental to the government because he would not be able to work and pay restitution.

If the court allows Truman Lewis “to serve a sentence below the guidelines range, he may be able to seek employment to help work on restitution to the government,” the court document states.  Truman Lewis said he also wants a minimum prison sentence so he and his wife can continue to be positive influences on their four children.  “The entire family is extremely religious and attend church regularly, sometimes four to five times weekly as a family,” the court document states, adding that Truman Lewis and his wife “have a deep abiding belief in their religious convictions and are trying to pass their beliefs on to the children.”

David McCann, a court-appointed lawyer representing Norman Lewis, filed a document Monday asking for leniency for his client, but the filing does not recommend a specific prison sentence.  A lengthy sentence for the 32-year-old Norman Lewis “interrupts his young family and presents the unnecessary cost to taxpayers for confinement and treatment, if available,” McCann said in the court filing.

Norman Lewis’ previous court appearances have been marred by outbursts and repeated requests to represent himself at trial.  Norman Lewis initially told Gergel he wanted to be represented by God and Jesus rather than a court-appointed defender.  He also spoke during an arraignment hearing about more than 100 songs and poems he has written about his work with Helping Hands, “doing so in a manner that left the court concerned with the defendant’s mental capacity.”

A psychiatric exam in December 2012 showed Norman Lewis was competent to stand trial, prompting Gergel to approve his request to represent himself. Gergel rescinded that request in February 2013 after Norman Lewis repeatedly refused to accept boxes of discovery documents needed for trial preparation.  Norman Lewis’ refusal to meet with a probation officer led to his incarceration three months later and he was charged with contempt of court in July for speaking to potential jurors.

Norman Lewis’ wife, Melanie Lewis, pleaded guilty last year to one conspiracy charge in a plea agreement to avoid a trial.  That charge carries a maximum five-year prison sentence. Melanie Lewis will be sentenced on Thursday in Charleston.

Testimony during the August trial showed Helping Hands officials — most of them Lewis family members — falsified records and submitted bills for ineligible or non-existent clients in order to boost Medicaid payments.  Lewis family members then transferred that money to personal bank accounts and purchased items such as 10 automobiles, including an $89,000 Bentley and a $55,900 Mercedes....

Bank records included in court documents show Helping Hands billed Medicaid a steadily increasing amount starting in January 2009, when the agency received $13,500 from the federal health program.  By April 2010, Helping Hands was billing Medicaid for $1 million per month.  The agency closed for good in 2011.

Based on the amount of money apparently involved in this federal fraud (as well as enhancements for leadership role and other aggravating guideline factors), I would guess that the guidelines recommend a sentence of a decade or more for Truman and Norman Lewis. But would it be more effective and efficient for them to get a shorter prison sentence coupled with a rigorous set of restitution obligations to help ensure federal taxpayers are made whole?

You be the judge (and, ideally, propose in the comments a sentence that makes a clever pun about Helping Hands).

March 17, 2014 at 06:18 PM | Permalink

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Comments

The family certainly seems to have used their hands to help themselves to a lot of the people's money. The question in my mind is whether rehabilitation is an effective sentencing goal in circumstances where such large sums are involved. Realistically there isn't much chance that he will be able to repay the government the full sum or even close to it. Nor do a see much value in incapacitation because realistically given his conviction the collateral consequences are that he will never be trusted with such larges sums of the people's money in the future. So that leaves deterrence. And it strikes me that a long prison sentence might be the only thing to deter someone from stealing almost ten million dollars. I'm also troubled by the fact that this seems to be a family enterprise and he was the ringleader of it. He risked not only his future but the future of his younger siblings too.

In the end I do not think I would give him probation. How many years? I'd want help my own hands to the entire record first.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 17, 2014 7:30:52 PM

This is an all too common con-after-the-con:

"If you show me leniency as to imprisonment, I'll pay the restitution more effectively."

They don't. The consequences (if any) for violating probation/supervised release by not paying NEVER match the benefit gained when this ploy is successful.

How about this? Pay it now if you have it. If you approach the bench at sentencing having made the victim whole, you'll be deserving of some consideration.
Or pay it when you get out and maybe an early termination of supervision will be granted.

The promises of a con man aren't worth the fraction of a calorie it takes to hear them

Posted by: Wayne-O | Mar 17, 2014 11:13:51 PM

Pardon the pun, or pardon the inmate, but never should an inmate ask for a helping hand.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Mar 17, 2014 11:22:17 PM

let us not forget the govt's part in this. they have many chances to catch this in the early stages.

this is a very telling item.

" Those clients were referred to the agency by the state’s Department of Social Services and area school officials, even though the agency’s counselors were not licensed."

If this was a licensed and approved agency. Why was this not checked and rechecked at regular unannounced times?

any takers on a bet that a nice hunk of those million ended up in the hands of those supposed to do those very checks?

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 17, 2014 11:33:57 PM

If any meaningful sentence needs to be imposed for deterence, it is for these types of crimes (fraud). Real Harm was made to the taxpayers. I'll accept the verdict of the Judge and not the DOJ. In this type of crime, forfeiture and restitution AND prison time are appropriate. At least 10 years, not to exceed 20 would seem about right. Full restitution should be a mitigating factor.

Posted by: albeed | Mar 18, 2014 8:28:12 AM

As Wayne-O says, the notion that this guy will ever fork over a dime in restitution is a fantasy. I have seen this sort of case again and again. What these characters do is manufacture a "restitution plan," but nothing ever actually gets paid. When they're called into court, they either don't show up, or it's just a parade of excuses. It's never any actual money.

And there isn't going to be any rehab, so you can forget that. The guy is as thoroughly dishonest as a person gets, and doesn't see anything wrong with it, as he has made perfectly clear.

It's just hard to believe that a clear-thinking adult would fall for this "rehab and restitution" line.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 18, 2014 9:55:44 AM

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