Trial of Florida health care executive $1B fraud nears end
MIAMI (AP) — The federal trial of a Florida health care executive wrapped up on Friday with closing statements from the prosecution calling the defendant a trickster who couldn’t help himself and his defense arguing he was an ambitious and caring businessman.
Philip Esformes, 50, faces decades in prison if convicted of defrauding Medicare of $1 billion in one of the biggest such cases in U.S. history.
Prosecutors said the Miami Beach businessman was the mastermind in a scheme that would pay bribes and kickbacks to doctors so they would refer patients to his network of nursing homes. They also say Esformes and his co-conspirators paid bribes to a health care regulator in return for tips about when inspectors planned surprise visits to his facilities and when patients made complaints.
Esformes’ attorney, Roy Black, told jurors his client never paid kickbacks to doctors so they would refer patients to his nursing and assisted living facilities. The defense also said Esformes’ management style was “obsessive,” saying he wanted his facilities to always be ready for a government inspection.
In the seven-week trial, a former University of Pennsylvania basketball coach also testified that he accepted bribes from Esformes to have his son admitted into the business college. Another coach implicated was recently suspended from Auburn University.
At one point, prosecutors showed text messages between Esformes and Rick Singer, the admissions consultant at the center of a college bribery scandal who has pleaded guilty in a Boston federal court. Singer tells Esformes what score is needed for Esformes’ son to get into the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Justice Department attorney James Hayes said Esformes resorted to kickbacks to fill his facilities at full capacity, to improve inspections and to get his son into one of the most prestigious business schools. Prosecutors played an audio recording where Esformes appears to be telling his staff to have one of his facilities ready for a health regulator’s visit.
“Philip Esformes can’t help himself. That’s part of his tragedy,” Hayes said.
At one point in the nine-hour hearing, Hayes compared Esformes to a “vampire,” but apologized after the defense argued against using that term.
Defense attorneys told jurors the courtroom was packed because his employees and patients at his facilities cared about him, challenging prosecutors’ arguments that he treated patients at his facilities like “cattle.”
Black asked jurors not to trust the government witnesses, including convicted co-conspirators Gabriel and Guillermo Delgado, saying they were lying in order to get reduced sentences.
“They are a bunch of liars, who lied and conned their entire lives, and no one should believe what they have to say,” Black said.
He said many of the suspicious billings the government characterized as fraudulent were not illegal.
The prosecution “twisted the facts and ignored the real evidence,” Black told jurors. “They caused you to be prejudiced against him all based on things that are not true.”
Jurors begin deliberating on Monday.