Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

For local federal prosecutors, a banner year in financial collections

TAMPA — Got a dollar? You could play a slot in Vegas or buy a Lotto ticket.

Got $23.2 million?

Let a federal prosecutor invest it.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the region that includes the Tampa Bay area last year took in $8 for each $1 it spent, parlaying a $23.2 million annual budget into an enterprise that collected $191 million through criminal, civil and forfeiture actions.

The money was stripped away from people who ran pill mills, gambled illegally, exploited children, stole from Medicare, duped the Defense Department and violated the Do-Not-Call list.

The $8-on-the-dollar rate doesn't count the office's role in a nationwide discriminatory lending case that reeled in $175 million from Wells Fargo Bank, accused of charging higher fees and interest rates to African-Americans and Hispanics from 2004 to 2009.

"With or without the Wells Fargo settlement, this is far and away the best year we've ever had," said A. Lee Bentley III, acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, which stretches from Naples to Georgia and includes 35 of Florida's 67 counties.

Nationally, the Justice Department said it collected $8 billion, or nearly three times the $2.76 billion in taxpayer money that kept 94 U.S. attorney's offices and the department's main litigating divisions afloat.

"As these figures show, supporting our federal prosecutors is a sound investment," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this month in a statement.

His comment and the collection numbers were trumpeted by top prosecutors in districts across the nation in the days leading up to Thursday's passage of a spending bill by the Senate. The Justice Department's entire budget, $27.4 billion, included a $338 million increase over last year. The department also funds the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons.

In this district, Bentley credits law enforcement partners and his civil fraud division's efforts on whistle-blower cases filed by private citizens under the False Claims Act. The so-called qui tam actions — Latin, meaning brought for the government as well as the plaintiff — can make millionaires out of ordinary people who go up against others who defraud the government.

"It's really been in the last few years that our civil recoveries have shot way up," he said. "The main reason is our civil division has done a tremendous job developing the qui tam cases filed here and success breeds success."

The Middle District reported the nation's third-largest whistle-blower caseload during the budgeting year that ended Sept. 30.

The government and a tipster extracted $26.2 million from Venice dermatologist Steven J. Wasserman, accused of billing Medicare for work he did not perform. In two other cases, hospital chains paid settlements of $26 million and $10.1 million.

The public face of the U.S. Attorney's Office is often a steady stream of criminal prosecutions against drug traffickers, child pornographers, federal benefit cheats, illegal immigrants, counterfeiters and gun law violators.

But federal attorneys also serve as bill collectors for civil and criminal debts owed to the United States and criminal debts owed to federal crime victims.

The money follows several streams. Judges may impose fines, which feed the Treasury. They may order restitution for victims. They may enter monetary judgments against defendants or allow the government to take assets through criminal or civil forfeiture.

In September, Dennis Brian Devlin of Daytona Beach lost a $1.5 million interest in the Desert Inn hotel after he was convicted of making child porn there.

Participants in a Tampa-based pill mill ring lost, over a two-year period, more than $6 million in drug proceeds to the government, along with a Rolex watch, a Lincoln and real estate.

Routinely, agents identify suspicious cash and the government sues to keep it, filing forfeiture actions intriguingly styled United States vs. $20,000,000 or United States vs. $1,820,008.93. The former case, out of Jacksonville, related to mortgage document forgery; the latter, out of Fort Myers, related to online gambling funds seized in transit.

The American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns about asset forfeiture across the nation because the practice has at times been associated with racial profiling and because cash-strapped police agencies may have incentives to go after assets.

The U.S. Attorney's Office doesn't get to keep what it collects, Bentley said.

Some of it winds up in Justice Department or Treasury forfeiture accounts that are used to pay crime victims or fund law enforcement programs.

Some settlements go back to the Treasury, or to specific federal payers such as Medicare.

"There's no financial incentive for us to seek more in higher recovery," he said. "We do it because it's the right thing to do and it's a central part of our mission."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.

Big payoffs

Here are some of the settlements and a fine that led to record collections for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Middle District of Florida. Most are whistle-blower cases, in which informers share in the proceeds.

$26.2 million settlement

A physician whistle-blower alleged that Venice dermatologist Steven J. Wasserman billed Medicare for work he did not perform with help from a pathologist who settled separately.

$26 million settlement

A health care consultant alleged inpatient billing for outpatient services by the Shands Healthcare chain in North Florida.

$10.1 million settlement

A Morton Plant Hospital whistle-blower exposed a practice that inflated billing for cardiology procedures.

$7.5 million civil fine

Prosecutors teamed up with the Federal Trade Commission, which found that Mortgage Investors Corp. of St. Petersburg contacted 5.4 million homes in violation of the Do Not call statute.

$5.75 million settlement

A whistle-blower against retired Air Force Lt. Col. Steve R. Stallings and Science Applications International Corp. alleged a scheme to bypass competitive bidding on defense contracts.

$1 million settlement

Two whistle-blowers alleged that Hernando Pasco Hospice Inc. submitted false claims to Medicare and Medicaid.

For local federal prosecutors, a banner year in financial collections 01/20/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 20, 2014 10:51pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Toddler, 1, drowns in spa at birthday party in Trinity

    Accidents

    TRINITY — A toddler drowned at a birthday party Saturday evening and died at the hospital, authorities say, after his parents found him in a spa.

  2. Review: Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald team up to cool down the Clearwater Jazz Holiday

    Blogs

    A cool breeze swept through Coachman Park Saturday night. Couple of them, actually.

    Kenny Loggins performed at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday on Oct. 21, 2017.
  3. No. 16 USF hangs on at Tulane, off to first 7-0 start

    College

    NEW ORLEANS — After half a season of mismatches, USF found itself in a grudge match Saturday night.

    USF quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) runs for a touchdown against Tulane during the first half of an NCAA college football game in New Orleans, La., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Derick E. Hingle) LADH103
  4. Lightning buries Penguins (w/video)

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — Ryan Callahan spent a lot of time last season rehabilitating his injured hip alongside Steven Stamkos, who was rehabbing a knee after season-ending surgery. During those hours, Callahan noticed two things about Stamkos: his hunger and his excitement to return this season.

    Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek (29) advances the puck through the neutral zone during the first period of Saturday???‚??„?s (10/21/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
  5. Spain planning to strip Catalonia of its autonomy

    World

    BARCELONA, Spain — The escalating confrontation over Catalonia's independence drive took its most serious turn Saturday as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain announced he would remove the leadership of the restive region and initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid.

    Demonstrators in Barcelona protest the decision to take control of Catalonia to derail the independence movement.