Longform

Rx for Plunder

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Bernard was ordered to serve five years in prison. Dimitrouleas flat-out stated he would have piled on more time had the attorneys "not limited my jurisdiction to just one count." Two U.S. marshals stood up and snapped Bernard's wrists into handcuffs. He looked even more like Pootie Tang as the officers removed his belt; his power seemed to fade as they led him away. Friends and family, including Bernard's pastor, watched helplessly. Althea ran from the courtroom.

At her own sentencing several weeks later, Althea faced the judge. She wore a maroon outfit with a flower print. Her hair was pulled into a bun just as tight as her unsmiling mouth.

Several people watched from the benches, sniffling for her and making overtures to Lord Jesus. Althea's pastor spoke on her behalf, saying that she and Bernard had enrolled in the Institute of Theology by Extension, a five-year program that would allow them to get pastoral licenses. The pastor told the judge he'd pray for him.

That was nice, but Althea got four years and three months anyway.

Taxpayers had footed the bill for the Graveses' lush lifestyle and mansion. Taxpayers had shouldered the costs of their prosecution. Now, taxpayers would give the couple shelter and food — in the form of concrete walls and baloney sandwiches.

The couple had amassed a small fortune in real estate — but most properties would be foreclosed upon as part of the $5 million in restitution they were each ordered to pay. In plea agreements, the couple's defense lawyers specified that the defendants would be allowed to keep a two-story house, worth $597,350, in a gated neighborhood in Stuart — that is, if relatives pay the mortgage on it. (The couple sold the mansion.)

Neil Leder decided to cooperate with authorities — eventually. He took a plea deal and is serving 17 months in prison. According to Leder's attorney, his wife, a librarian, is trying to pay her mortgage alone, and Leder's elderly mother is kicking in to help.

Tabatha Harrell went into business with her sister selling diabetes supplies.

Mashama Brannigan found work in the funeral business.

Michael Evans still works as a biller.

U.S. Attorney Nicholson has since gone into private practice as a defense attorney.

No one could say what had happened to the patients who'd been seen at Oakland. A Medicare spokeswoman gave no specifics, saying only that the agency "always moves to protect Medicare beneficiaries when [it] hears or is notified by another agency that a provider is being closed."

When Oakland shut down, Yvonne Howell liquidated her interest in two of her nursing homes but went back to work at one. As she went about the business of dressing wounds and changing diapers, she clung to her declaration of innocence. She decided to take her chances and go to trial.


Evan Zimmer, the Oakland program's affable psychiatrist, benefited from the government's immunity deal, and he was not charged with any wrongdoing. These days, he works in the pain management field.

He didn't testify against Yvonne at trial. Sources familiar with the case said no lawyer would put Zimmer on the stand because opposing counsel would try to discredit him by bringing up a well-known incident from his past. In 1984, Zimmer fell asleep at the wheel of his convertible and crashed into the water. When police arrived, he was swimming to shore with a baggie in his mouth. It contained about 500 prescription pills, including Valium, Vicodin, and Xanax, that he had rescued from his sinking car.

These days, Zimmer laughs off the incident. "I learned you can't take a car waterskiing!" he says. Zimmer went into detox and now proudly states that he became the first doctor in Florida to lose his license and get it reinstated. He changed his specialty to psychiatry and specialized in addiction therapy, putting to good use his ability to empathize with recovering addicts.

Zimmer acknowledges his share of personal problems. Doctors, he notes, are not infallible creatures who breathe some rarefied air. When he came to Oakland Community Health Center, he was a dude in need of a job.

Still, he feels that every patient treated at Oakland deserved to be there. "My job at a PHP was to prevent further deterioration," he says. Despite all of the work that had been put into falsifying documents to make patients look as if they were improving, Medicare regulations do indeed state that PHPs are "reasonably expected to improve or maintain" the individual's condition to prevent relapse or hospitalization. Though with stays at Oakland limited to 30 or 45 days, he says, the program was often forced to discharge patients "before we could see if the meds were working."

He concedes that he signed freely on psychiatric evaluations, progress notes, and charts. He adds, though, that in today's health care environment, it's necessary to move paperwork expediently. Health care is based on trust, he says. "When a nurse tells you that a patient has a fever, you don't ask to see a picture of the thermometer with today's newspaper in the background."

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Deirdra Funcheon