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Jury deliberating $2.5M healthcare fraud case

McALLEN — A jury must now decide if a 41-year-old woman and co-owner of a medical supply company in McAllen was at the center of a multi-million dollar Medicaid fraud scheme, or was cheated by her employees who pleaded guilty before the trial.

Maria Garza, who owned Hacienda DME along with her husband Gregorio Garza, has been on trial for seven days accused of defrauding Medicaid for more than $2.5 between 2008 and 2013.

Garza was arrested along with six of her employees in June 2016 and faces 18 charges, including three counts of healthcare fraud, two counts of aggravated identify theft, and two counts of tampering with witnesses after she allegedly made death threats to the other suspects.

Bertha Lopez, 61, of Sullivan City, served as a marketer and vendor for the company; Miriam Aguilar, 31, of Rio Grande City was a delivery driver and recruiter; Nancy Rangel, 30, of Mission, was a biller and recruiter. Veronica Cruz, 32, of Donna; Angelica Saenz, 44, of Mission; and Yolotzi Lara, 28, of Peñitas, were also charged for their roles as recruiters for Hacienda DME.

Aguilar worked for Garza between October 2010 and June or July of 2012. She said during that time Garza would instruct her to deliver cheaper supplies such as medical wipes in place of pads so they could increase the amount they could bill the more expensive supplies.

While on the stand Friday, Aguilar admitted to lying to investigators when they first approached her in an effort to conceal the side deals she had orchestrated with suppliers and failed to tell them she was selling unauthorized customer information to her co-worker Lopez, who’s accused of forging doctors’ signatures on Medicaid applications.

“I just want the truth to come out,” Aguilar said on the stand. “I’m just here to also pay for what I did.” According to defense attorney Jaime Pe a, Aguilar pocketed about $1.5 million in the two years she worked for Garza, and Lopez made nearly $150,000 running the scheme they’ve both admitted to.

“This was a conspiracy between them and they did not want Maria to know,” Pe a said during closing arguments. “The government’s argument is that she should know because she is the owner and the boss, but there is no direct evidence that can prove that.”

Peña blamed the government for trying to paint a picture of Garza as a “tyrant” and for relying heavily on testimony from the employees who worked out plea deals with the government before the trial. He also said the fake invoices, checks, and delivery logs were under the employees’ names and Garza trusted them.

“She had faith in these people,” he said. “Why don’t they say that these girls were lying to her?”

With the help of a colorful PowerPoint presentation, Peña went through the indictment discrediting each of the government’s charges Thursday until he arrived to the last two when he laughed, calling them a “convenient charge.”

“Witness tampering,” he said explaining the charges were added after the plea deals. “This was a jail, and they were all there, all the suspects in one room and conveniently there was no audio or video, to record.”

Peña said there were five different versions of the alleged death threat and Lopez could not be included as a victim to the charge because she told investigators that she did not hear the threat.

Prosecutor Michael Edward Day shot back during rebuttal saying there were 12 witnesses who took the stand and even though their testimony varied from one to the next, there was consistency in the fact that they all said Maria was at the center of the conspiracy. He said Garza hand-picked employees and suppliers to allow her to commit the scheme.

“They are trying to play the victim that these vendors took advantage of her but she chose those vendors because she knew they would help her commit the fraud,” Day said.

He told the jury that the government does not have to prove that she forged the forms and that under the law if she was part of it or even knew about it then “It’s almost as if she forged them with her hand herself.”

Garza and her employees were arrested as part of a nationwide takedown led by the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, where 301 individuals were arrested, including 61 doctors, nurses and other licensed medical professionals, for their alleged participation in healthcare fraud schemes involving approximately $900 million in false billings in 36 federal districts.

In the Southern District of Texas, which spans from McAllen to Houston, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice Medicare Fraud Strike Force charged 22 individuals in 11 cases involving more than a $136 million in alleged fraud. In a news release, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell called it the largest national medical fraud takedown in history.

Jury deliberations are expected to continue Friday morning.

Written by
Kristian Hernandez - The Monitor