IRS probes Grand Strand youth service

The Internal Revenue Service is investigating a youth mentoring agency in Conway and Georgetown for possible Medicaid fraud, tax evasion and money laundering in a case that apparently was aided by policy violations at a local S.C. Department of Social Services office and a lack of due diligence by the Georgetown County School District.

The agency also did work for at least three schools in the Horry County School District, but without that district's official approval, according to spokeswoman Teal Britton.

Helping Hands Youth and Family Services - which is owned by Charlotte, N.C., resident Truman Lewis - is accused in court documents of improperly and excessively billing the federal Medicaid program for nearly $9 million since 2009.

Lewis and his family members then used that money to purchase homes, luxury vehicles - including an $89,000 Bentley and a $55,900 Mercedes - and to make personal financial investments, according to affidavits filed last week in federal court in Florence by IRS investigators.

Helping Hands had hundreds of clients in Horry and Georgetown counties who were referred by DSS and school officials, even though the agency's counselors are not licensed and its owner is a convicted felon.

Helping Hands - a for-profit company - is not related to Grand Strand-area nonprofit groups with similar names, such as Helping Hand of Myrtle Beach Inc., North Strand Helping Hand and Helping Hands of Georgetown.

Lewis did not return telephone calls to The Sun News, and there was no answer at the agency's offices at 1512 Fourth Ave. in Conway and at 1167 Fraser St. in Georgetown. The company also lists offices in Columbia and Rock Hill.

A federal judge has issued search warrants for the Helping Hands offices and several homes belonging to the Lewis family.

One of those searches resulted in the arrest of Lewis late last month, after federal agents found a loaded 9mm Ruger pistol at one of the homes he owns in Charlotte. Lewis - who was convicted in 2003 of cocaine possession with the intent to distribute near a school in Bamberg County - was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He is free on $100,000 unsecured bond.

No arrests have been made in the Helping Hands case, although an investigation is continuing, and federal agents have seized at least six bank accounts used by the agency and Lewis family members.

Affidavits in the Helping Hands case show the alleged fraud was aided by the actions of a Georgetown County DSS case worker, who referred dozens of children to Helping Hands despite never having met the children.

That case worker told investigators that she made the referrals based on statements by adults who said they were the parents or guardians of the children. Some of those adults never visited the DSS office but instead telephoned the case worker to ask for Helping Hands' services. The case worker said she never verified the identities of those adults or whether their statements were true, according to the affidavits.

The case worker also completed paperwork authorizing Helping Hands to treat the children even though she is not licensed to do so, according to the affidavits.

Sylvia Mitchum - the DSS director for Horry and Georgetown counties - told investigators that the case worker violated the agency's policy by referring individuals who were not in her caseload. Mitchum did not return telephone calls from The Sun News.

Children also were referred to Helping Hands by the Georgetown County School District, according to the affidavits.

It is not clear how many referrals the district made or whether anyone investigated the agency before school officials started making referrals. Randy Dozier, the district's superintendant, and schools spokesman Ray White did not return telephone calls from The Sun News.

The affidavits show Helping Hands sent blank copies of Medicaid-required referral forms and medical necessity statements to Jacqueline Geathers, a guidance counselor at Kensington Elementary School, at the beginning of the current school year.

Melanie Lewis - a Helping Hands employee who is the sister-in-law of Truman Lewis - then instructed Geathers on what information to write on the forms and told Geathers to leave some information blank, according to court documents.

"I can fill in that information," Melanie Lewis told Geathers in an e-mail.

Geathers told The Sun News that she and other district employees started using Helping Hands after the agency's staff members made a presentation to guidance counselors. Geathers said district employees did not research the agency before referring students to Helping Hands.

"We trusted them," Geathers said. "He spoke very eloquently, and we were excited because we didn't have that type of service here where children can have a role model and someone to look up to."

Britton said a guidance counselor and two administrators at three Horry County schools - Waccamaw Elementary, Conway High School and Ocean Bay Elementary - referred at least 20 students to the agency after Helping Hands officials made presentations to them about their purported services. Britton said the referrals were made without the district's knowledge or approval.

Britton said Helping Hands had applied more than once to provide services to the district, but the agency was not approved because it didn't meet the district's guidelines.

Horry County Schools realized some of its employees had referred students to the agency after it received a $58,000 invoice from the state's Department of Health and Human Services for its portion of the Medicaid bill. Britton said the district is disputing that bill.

Helping Hands counselors - many of them Truman Lewis' family members - would meet with the children almost daily, including weekends and holidays, according to Medicaid records. Helping Hands billed Medicaid $240 for each of those daily mentoring sessions.

Many of the bills were for services that purportedly started months before the required paperwork had been filed, according to the IRS investigation. In other cases, the paperwork was incomplete or did not exist.

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 program that provides health services to low-income residents.

By April 2010, Helping Hands was billing Medicaid for $1 million per month.

During that same period, Truman Lewis and his family members started transferring funds from the agency's bank account to their personal accounts, according to the affidavits.

That money was then used to purchase at least 13 automobiles, a home in Charlotte, a manufactured home in Georgetown, a manufactured home in Hemingway, a golf cart and at least five certificates of deposit totaling $562,000, the affidavits said.

IRS investigators also say Helping Hands has failed to file any corporate tax returns, owes payroll taxes of at least $252,724, and the Lewis family has failed to report all of its income from the agency.