Helping Hands director wants out jail despite court disruptions, contempt order

07/16/2013 11:21 AM

07/16/2013 11:23 AM

Norman Lewis – one of the former directors of an area youth mentoring agency accused of Medicaid fraud – has asked a federal judge to release him from jail while he awaits trial despite his numerous outbursts during court hearings, including one last week in which a contempt order was issued after Lewis refused to stop talking to potential jurors.

Lewis has been held at the Charleston County Detention Center since May 6 because he refused to meet with his probation officer as required by his bond conditions. Lewis and his family members – his wife Melanie Lewis and his brother Truman Lewis – are accused of fraudulently billing the federal Medicaid health program for $8.9 million through their Helping Hands Youth and Family Services agency, and then using that money to buy luxury automobiles, homes and other personal items.

The now-defunct Helping Hands – a for-profit group that is not affiliated with area charities with similar names – had offices in Conway, Georgetown, Columbia and Rock Hill. The Lewises face six felony charges apiece of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit health care fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. A jury trial is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Aug. 19 in Charleston.

Norman Lewis last week asked Judge Richard Gergel for permission to leave the detention center and live with his parents in Georgetown until the trial date. David McCann, a lawyer assigned to represent Norman Lewis, said his client refuses to communicate with him “but does communicate and take the advice of his parents.” A hearing on the request is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday in Charleston.

Prosecutors object to Norman Lewis’ release, saying in court documents that he “has been openly defiant to this court’s power and authority” since the case began.

The request came one day after Gergel issued a contempt order against Norman Lewis because of his disruptive behavior during a July 10 preliminary hearing and jury selection. Gergel told Norman Lewis not to speak during the hearing because McCann had been appointed to represent him.

“Lewis again indicated he was representing himself and that the court’s ruling [appointing McCann] was illegal,” the contempt order states.

Gergel responded by telling Norman Lewis: “You do not have the right to speak, you are not to speak, and I will impose sanctions on your, sir, if you attempt to speak.”

Moments later, the jury pool was brought into the courtroom and Norman Lewis started talking with the potential jurors, defying Gergel’s order, court documents show. Norman Lewis refused to stop talking until a U.S. Marshall forced him to sit down and be quiet.

Contempt of court is punishable by a fine or prison term at the judge’s discretion. Gergel said in his contempt order that he will postpone sanctions “until a later date in the hope that this ruling may be sufficient to persuade [Norman] Lewis to comply with this court’s order and take no further action to disrupt the orderly process of the court.”

Norman Lewis’ courtroom troubles started last year when he said during a court hearing that he wanted to be represented by God and Jesus rather than a court-appointed defender. Norman Lewis also spoke during an arraignment hearing last year 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,” Gergel said while ordering Norman Lewis to undergo a psychiatric examination.

A psychiatric exam in December showed Norman Lewis is competent to stand trial, prompting Gergel to approve Lewis’ request to represent himself. Gergel rescinded that request in February 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.

Helping Hands Youth and Family Services had hundreds of clients, many of them referred by area school districts and social services agencies. 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 in 2011, when the government seized nearly $1.2 million in cash and certificates of deposit that Lewis family members had at area banks as well as two homes and 10 automobiles, including an $89,000 Bentley and a $55,900 Mercedes.

Helping Hands, which closed for good in 2011, was supposed to provide mentoring services to low-income children with family or behavioral problems. Helping Hands counselors told The Sun News 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.

During that same period, Lewis family members started transferring funds from the agency’s bank account to their personal accounts, according to court documents.

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