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Defense lawyer in WellCare trial attacks key witness as 'embellisher'

TAMPA — A lawyer for a former WellCare executive on trial for Medicaid fraud took aim Tuesday at one of the prosecution's star witnesses, portraying him as someone who speculated about details he did not understand.

Former WellCare financial analyst Greg West pleaded guilty in the case in 2007, promising to cooperate with federal prosecutors in exchange for a lighter punishment. Prosecutors later charged five former executives at WellCare, the Tampa-based health insurance company that provides managed-care plans for Medicaid patients.

Over the past week, West has testified that, at the behest of WellCare higher-ups, he calculated false information pertaining to how much state money the company spent on mental health services for Medicaid patients.

On Tuesday, defense lawyer John Lauro suggested there was a good reason West had been targeted by company whistle-blower Sean Hellein. Hellein secretly taped conversations he had with West, recordings that helped lead West to cooperate with prosecutors.

"Hellein knew you were an embellisher," Lauro said to West.

"I don't know if he knew," West replied.

Lauro also asked West whether he had ever read WellCare's contracts with the state or the 2002 statute governing the portion of state-paid premiums HMOs should spend on mental health services. The answer was no.

Reading the documents "could change your mind about a lot of things, would you agree?" Lauro said.

"It might," said West.

HMOs are required to spend 80 percent of the state money they get for behavioral services on care; spend less and the difference goes back to the state.

Prosecutors contend WellCare inflated costs to reduce what it owed the state. They say employees created a company, later called Harmony, that WellCare's two Florida HMOs paid for behavioral services.

On Monday, the jury heard taped 2007 meetings among WellCare employees, including West, who discussed how to calculate the cost-of-service figures the state requested. Payments to Harmony complicated the issue. On the tape, a former executive on trial, vice president Peter Clay, could be heard warning about using information that "opens us up to substantial economic challenges."

West testified that the government had convinced him that he was a co-conspirator in the deal. But he told the jury that he wasn't the only one, naming more than a dozen other WellCare employees who attended meetings where the submissions to the state were discussed.

Only three of those he mentioned have been charged. Among the dozen or so employees named by West, Lauro pointed out, was a manager whom he had earlier described as ethical.

West responded that they had all been complicit by not saying anything.

"If you don't turn them in, you're part of it," he said.

The jury trial is expected to last as long as three months. On trial are former chief executive Todd S. Farha, former chief financial officer Paul L. Behrens, former vice president William Kale and Clay. Former general counsel Thaddeus Bereday was also indicted, but because of a medical condition will be tried separately.

Each man is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, four counts of health care fraud and of making false statements relating to health care matters.

West said Tuesday that the federal agents who confronted him at his home a day before they raided WellCare headquarters made him fearful about prison. He described "intense" daylong meetings with prosecutors over the past five years as they built their case. "No breaks for lunch," he said.

"Deep down inside, you don't believe you did anything wrong," Lauro said. "Is that correct?"

"No," West said, "that's not correct."

Defense lawyer in WellCare trial attacks key witness as 'embellisher' 03/19/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 10:04pm]

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