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.
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. The U.S. Attorney’s office said Helping Hands also billed Medicaid for children who were no longer in the program or who had no diagnosis to justify billing.
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.
The Helping Hands group run by the Lewises 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.