MYRTLE BEACH — The former director of an area youth mentoring agency accused of Medicaid fraud wants the criminal charges dropped because he says prosecutors withheld information from a grand jury that might have shown he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Truman Lewis – who founded the Helping Hands Youth and Family Services agency, with offices in Conway and Georgetown – said in court documents this week that his agency already had entered into an agreement with the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services to pay back Medicaid overbilling when federal prosecutors sought the criminal charges.
“The fact that the prosecution did not inform the grand jury that an equitable arrangement had been created . . . was the difference between the defendant being indicted and not being indicted,” Lewis stated in the court documents.
Lewis said prosecutors were “totally cognizant that complete repayment was on schedule” yet failed to provide that exculpatory evidence to the grand jury.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia has until Nov. 9 to respond to the accusations. Spokeswoman Beth Drake could not be reached for comment. The U.S. Attorney’s office typically does not comment on pending legal matters.
Lewis and two family members who helped operate Helping Hands were indicted in June on six felony charges apiece of health care fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. Prosecutors say the family members fraudulently billed Medicaid for $8.9 million and then used that money to buy luxury automobiles, a beachfront condominium, homes, private investments and other personal items. The agency, which also had offices in Columbia and Rock Hill, closed in early 2011.
Documents filed this week show the state’s Health and Human Services agency – which administers the federal Medicaid program – audited Helping Hands twice in 2010. Those audits led to a compromised settlement in which both sides agreed that Medicaid had been overbilled by $1.2 million. The state’s Health and Human Services agency agreed on Aug. 30, 2010, to let Helping Hands repay that money in monthly installments of $50,478 – including interest of 5.25 percent – beginning in September 2010. Helping Hands had made all payments due – including two payments in December 2010 – before investigators shut down the agency and seized its bank accounts.
Kim Cox, a spokeswoman for the state’s Health and Human Services agency, said she cannot comment on pending legal matters.
The $1.2 million agreement reached following the state agency’s administrative investigation is far short of the $8.9 million that federal prosecutors say Helping Hands overbilled Medicaid between January 2009 and November 2010.
Prosecutors say Helping Hands officials falsified records and submitted bills for ineligible or non-existent clients in order to boost Medicaid payments. Helping Hands officials then transferred that money to personal bank accounts and purchased items including 10 automobiles, among them an $89,000 Bentley and a $55,900 Mercedes.
Lewis, in his court filing, said he should not be prosecuted because Medicaid overbilling is common and usually does not result in criminal charges if the money is paid back.
“It should be noted that in the U.S., hundreds of Medicaid service providers have been found to have over-billed Medicaid,” Lewis stated. “In the large majority of those cases, if a valid and acceptable repayment plan is agreed upon by Medicaid and adhered to by the Medicaid service provider, no charges are forthcoming.”
However, once the federal criminal investigation began, it voided the previous agreement Helping Hands had with the state.
No court date has been set to hear Lewis’ request for a dismissal.
Also facing criminal charges are Norman Lewis, who ran the Georgetown office, and his wife, Melanie Lewis. In August, Norman Lewis was ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination after refusing a court-appointed lawyer and telling Judge Richard Gergel that he instead will be represented by God and Jesus. The results of that examination are pending.
An eight-month investigation into Helping Hands started in 2010 with a confidential complaint to state officials alleging that the agency’s counselors were not licensed and that some Lewis family members had criminal records.
The Internal Revenue Service served search warrants on the Helping Hands offices early last year, when the government seized nearly $1.2 million in cash and certificates of deposit that Lewis family members had at area banks.
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.
Helping Hands counselors told The Sun News last year that agency leaders overloaded them with clients to increase the amount of Medicaid billings. The counselors said agency leaders told them to report hours spent with clients even if they had not been with the children, and told them to falsify reports sent to Medicaid.
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 Helping Hands group run by the Lewises – which was a for-profit agency – is not affiliated with nonprofits with similar names, including Helping Hand of Myrtle Beach and South Strand Helping Hand.
Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.