Thursday, February 22, 2018
Business

Universal Health Care trustee targets Akshay Desai's donation to Wake Forest

ST. PETERSBURG — As head of high-flying Medicare insurer Universal Health Care, Dr. Akshay Desai was a prominent member of many boards and organizations. Among them: the Parents Council of Wake Forest University.

Desai and his wife, Seema, whose two oldest children attended the North Carolina school, joined dozens of other parents selected in part for their ability to make an "annual contribution'' to the Wake Forest Fund.

Now, though, it appears that the Desais' $25,000 donation last year came not from them but from Universal and its sister companies just months before the insurer collapsed amid allegations of fraud, embezzlement and diversion of funds.

The trustee in Universal's bankruptcy case, who is charged with recouping lost and hidden assets for creditors, says Universal funds were illegally funneled into a nonprofit foundation set up by Desai and two former Universal executives.

Records show three associated Universal companies controlled by Desai, along with Desai's managed care organization, donated a total of $100,000 to the Universal Health Care Charitable Foundation late last June. A week later, the foundation made its one and only payout: a $25,000 check to Wake Forest.

In a complaint filed this week, Universal trustee Soneet Kapila described the foundation as the "alter ego" of Desai's Universal Health Care. He is seeking an injunction to freeze the foundation's BankUnited account to recoup the remaining $75,000 balance for Universal's creditors.

In a statement issued through his lawyer Tuesday, Desai said the foundation was set up to support "a wide array of charitable entities in health care, education and disaster relief activities.'' Because the foundation was so new, "it did not yet have the opportunity to evaluate and contribute'' to organizations other than Wake Forest, the statement said.

A 179-year-old private university in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wake Forest is known for its basketball team — the Demon Deacons — and as host of one of the debates between presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Among the notables who have attended the school are former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a close friend of Desai, a major Republican fundraiser, until Crist became a Democrat in 2012.

The Desais' oldest daughter, Priyanka, graduated from Wake Forest in 2010 and worked for the Republican-controlled U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee until January. Her brother Parth is due to graduate next year.

Until recently, the Desais were listed among the 85 couples on the Parents Council for 2012-13. Members, selected for "their interest in and ability to help Wake Forest fulfill its mission,'' are requested to make an annual contribution to the Wake Forest Fund.

As of Tuesday, the Desais no longer appeared on the council's website.

Tampa lawyer David Stefany, who with his wife chairs the council, said he had met Desai but didn't know if or why he had left the organization.

"He and his wife have a son there, and all I can tell you is that Wake Forest is a worthy nonprofit institution to donate to,'' Stefany said.

The implosion of Universal in February cost nearly 1,000 employees in St. Petersburg their jobs and left thousands of Medicare enrollees around the country scrambling to find new coverage. The FBI raided Universal's downtown St. Petersburg headquarters in March, seizing computers and documents as part of an ongoing investigation.

Kapila, the Universal trustee, said he believes many of Universal's assets were sheltered outside of the bankruptcy filing and that he planned to go after them aggressively.

"By all indications,'' Kapila said, the charitable organization was directly and fully funded by Universal money. "That would be unusual," said the 60-year-old veteran of bankruptcy proceedings. "I've never come across it in my many years of experience."

Looking ahead, the trustee anticipates trying to recover the $25,000 donation to Wake Forest as well if he can show it was inappropriately disbursed, as he believes.

Neither the director of parent programs nor Wake Forest general counsel returned calls seeking comment on whether the university would return the money.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected] Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected]

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