Philip Esformes, who once reigned over a healthcare kingdom that made him a super-rich man, was sentenced to 20 years in prison Thursday for paying bribes and receiving kickbacks in a massive $1 billion Medicare fraud case touted by federal prosecutors as the biggest in the nation.
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola said Esformes’ scheme to generate thousands of Medicare patients for his chain of assisted-living and nursing-home facilities in Miami-Dade was “unmatched in our community, if not our country.”
The judge said the taxpayer-funded Medicare program for the elderly and indigent was built on an honor system, and that “Mr. Esformes violated that trust in epic proportions.”
Before Scola issued his punishment, the wealthy Miami Beach business executive sobbed as he apologized to the judge. “I lost everything I loved,” Esformes, 50, said, admitting he was a “broken” man who was “disgusted” by his criminal activity. “I destroyed my marriage. I scarred my three children. There is no one to blame but myself. I accept responsibility for what I have done and regret it.”
Convicted at trial in April of 20 healthcare-related bribery, kickback and money-laundering charges, Esformes gave an emotional 16-minute speech that generally acknowledged his criminal life but also aimed for mercy. He has been held in the Miami federal detention center since his arrest three years ago.
“Your honor, I don’t want this [crime] to be the only legacy I leave behind,” said Esformes, whose lawyers and supporters in the courtroom spoke of his personal and financial charity, especially in the Jewish, medical and academic communities.
Justice Department prosecutor Allan Medina said Esformes not only exploited patients to line his pockets at his chain of 16 assisted-living and skilled-nursing facilities, but “corrupted” the whole Medicare system in his zeal to fill patient beds without providing actual care.
“He corrupted the entire system — the Medicare and Medicaid system,” Medina said. “Philip Esformes had every opportunity. He had wealth, [making] $78 million in 2017. … He has no excuse for what he did. He has no respect for the law. He has no remorse whatsoever.
“He was the boss,” Medina said. “He bullied people to get what he wanted.”
Justice Department prosecutors Medina, Elizabeth Young and James Hayes argued that Esformes had billed $1 billion to the federal health insurance program for questionable services that patients largely didn’t need or even receive between 2006 and 2016. For his sentencing, they estimated the government’s loss at more than $550 million and urged the judge to give Esformes 30 years in prison.
However, one of Esformes’ defense attorneys, Howard Srebnick, argued that the government’s estimated loss to Medicare was grossly inflated. He said the loss was as low as $690,000 and argued for a 10-year sentence.
Scola then cut Esformes a break, saying the loss was between $4.9 million and $8.3 million, which helped reduce the defendant’s potential sentence significantly. Scola called his estimate “highly conservative.”
At a critical juncture before he imposed Esformes’ punishment, the judge seemed willing to lower his final sentence by four years if the defendant agreed to elaborate on his “acceptance of responsibility” in his original statement to Scola. The judge said he would only acknowledge Esformes’ acceptance if he specifically admitted he paid bribes and committed other crimes. But, after Srebnick consulted with counsels Roy Black and Jackie Perczek, Esformes’ legal team chose not to go that route because it would have precluded their appeal of his trial convictions.
“There’s not much more Mr. Esformes will say today about his feelings and remorse,” Srebnick told the judge, arguing he has suffered greatly in federal detention, endured unending shame, and is no longer the arrogant man he was before his arrest.
After the sentencing hearing, Srebnick said Esformes plans to raise critical pre-trial allegations on appeal that had attacked how federal authorities obtained documents and recordings that led to the defendant’s indictment.
“For three years, the government alleged a $1 billion fraud, but today the district judge rejected that grossly exaggerated characterization,” Srebnick told the Miami Herald. “We are optimistic that the [federal] court of appeals will reinstate the magistrate judge’s findings of deplorable prosecutorial misconduct and will vacate the convictions and sentence.”
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