Lawyers in this case later determined that the letter came from Mashama Brannigan. But it could have been written by anyone working at the Oakland center. In January 2002, Harrell had been accused of stealing from Basic Home Care; in February, she was dismissed, she would tell the FBI, "like the common field slave." Multiple therapists had left voluntarily; one got fired for dressing sloppily, another for taking paperwork home. In April, the administrators had security cameras installed.
Somewhere along the way, the profitable little business had become a hive of bitterness. As a family friend would later observe, "sweet turns sour."
The FBI raided Oakland's offices in February 2003, but the company's principals roamed free for three years while investigators sifted through records in Miramar and conducted dozens of interviews — at federal offices, at Dunkin' Donuts, at Denny's.
Dr. Zimmer says he never again set foot in Oakland Community Health Center. With no patient files to work with, a plummeting reputation, and no more Medicare money, the facility went out of business.
In the course of its investigation, the FBI — mainly, the raven-haired Agent Nazworth — only unearthed more dirt. Documents indicated that sometime after Oakland opened, Althea had started another business called Guiding Light. When it failed to qualify for a Medicare provider number, she put its bills through under Oakland. Canceled checks and testimony from employees showed that she and Bernard took bills for improvements made to their home and put them through to Medicare as though work had been done at Oakland.
To strengthen its case, the government used a powerful technique: offering various degrees of immunity to some cooperators in exchange for information or testimony against defendants it deemed more culpable.
Once Michael Evans, the biller, was offered such a deal, he dropped a bomb: He told investigators that from the earliest days he worked with Oakland, he'd given kickbacks to the facility. Terminally ill and desperate for money, he would have lost the contract otherwise, he explained. He claimed that Bernard once threatened him and that his motorcycle was mysteriously sabotaged. So Evans gave Oakland 50 percent of what he'd made from Medicare — ranging from $51,000 to $116,00 annually over the years.
The feds also claimed that Oakland was offering kickbacks to clients. Emmins Henry, owner of the Shalom Manor assisted living facility, said she received rewards from Oakland: Yvonne would give her boxes of diapers and supplies for the patients and provide turkeys at Christmas. On at least one occasion, she told the FBI, she got an envelope that contained $50 to $100 in cash for the patients.
Allegations surfaced that, on at least one occasion, Neil Leder billed for therapy when in fact he had turned on a video of The Sound of Music and left the room. Confronted by the FBI and federal prosecutors, Leder answered questions only grudgingly. Had he piped up a little bit sooner, he too might have been granted immunity from prosecution. His second meeting with the FBI, according to an agent's report, "concluded early because of Leder's evasiveness." Prosecutor Robert Nicholson advised him to seek legal counsel.
Armed with such overwhelming allegations, then-U.S. Attorney Nicholson had no qualms about charging Althea, Bernard, Yvonne, and Leder with a whopping 43 criminal counts.
Nicholson had little sympathy for the accused. Of the mansion that Bernard and Althea were building, he said, "Donald Trump would blush at the opulence of this house." Oakland had been paid nearly $10 million by Medicare over the years — but that's not even counting claims that got denied. They'd tried to get $28 million. "Fraud was pervasive in every aspect of their business activities," Nicholson says.
Was there any evidence that Leder or Yvonne profited to the same degree as Bernard and Althea? "No. But they drew salaries, made false statements, and intentionally omitted facts."
The family's actions were in line with the massive, blatant fraud Nicholson sees all the time. "A Medicare provider number is a license to steal."
Bernard and Althea chose to take plea deals. Of the 43 counts on the indictment, all were dropped except one: conspiracy to make false documents relating to health care matters.
During his sentencing hearing in July, Bernard Graves said to federal Judge William Dimitrouleas, "I stand in responsibility." He likened himself to a general in charge of soldiers on a battlefield — soldiers, that is, who failed to follow his instructions. Bernard wondered aloud why no doctor was going to jail.