NEW PORT RICHEY — Laurette Philipsen went on photography outings with Dr. Louise Wilder and threw her a bridal shower when the doctor got married. At the same time, Philipsen was Wilder's office manager, handling every financial transaction that passed through the doctor's office.
Authorities say those parallel relationships — the trusted friend who became the trusted employee — were the tools Philipsen used to defraud Wilder out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Philipsen, 54, of Port Richey went to trial Monday on charges of criminal use of personal identification and scheme to defraud, felonies that could send her to prison for decades if she is convicted.
"This case is about betrayal, lies, theft and greed," Assistant State Attorney Chip Stanton told jurors.
As she was taking her family on shopping sprees and trips to Disney World, Stanton said, Philipsen was firing employees from Wilder's New Port Richey practice because she claimed there was no money to pay them. She let the doctor's malpractice insurance lapse, instead diverting the premium payments to herself. She took out two $50,000 loans in the doctor's name, once posing as Wilder on the phone with a loan officer reviewing the application, Stanton said. She also padded her own salary by $50,000, he said.
But Philipsen's public defender, Gary Welch, countered that the case is not about fraud but about incompetence.
He said Wilder, who went to medical school in her 30s, knew nothing about running a business and entrusted it to Philipsen, knowing she also knew nothing about finances.
"Their mutual incompetence breeds the ultimate conclusion," Welch said.
Wilder, then known as Louise Templeman before remarrying, started her family practice in 1996 as a contractor for Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital. She built it up slowly, first seeing as few as eight patients a day but later averaging 20 to 25.
But as the patient base increased, the money dwindled. The New Port Richey office, as far as Wilder could tell, was receiving fewer and fewer insurance reimbursement checks by 2003. As the financial picture worsened, Wilder questioned Philipsen about it.
"She would always come up with a reason," Wilder testified, such as slow-paying insurance companies or changes in Medicare reimbursements.
Wilder acknowledged that she gave Philipsen complete control of the office's finances, including payroll, patient charts and billing.
"She did a good job at it. I was able to trust her to take care of it," Wilder said.
Wilder, who didn't know how to use a computer or send e-mail, said she was happy to not have to worry about the business side because she was so busy seeing patients.
She only realized the crimes when, after two attempts to get her office mailbox key from Philipsen, she got one herself at the post office. When Wilder began opening her own mail, she discovered past-due bills for loans she never knew about.
"It all just started rolling downhill from there," Wilder said.
Philipsen's alleged schemes left Wilder on the hook for two $50,000 loans, which she defaulted on and has since had to hire a lawyer to fight, she said.
But she couldn't recover the money the IRS came after her for. Philipsen, she said, failed to pay $70,000 in payroll taxes at the doctor's office. That, combined with interest and penalties, put Wilder in debt to the government for almost $180,000.
When she finally sold the business at the end of 2005 for $18,000, that money went to the IRS, Wilder said.
As the Sheriff's Office investigated this case, Stanton said, Philipsen went to work for a Hudson neurology practice in 2006. In less than six months, he said, she stole nearly $40,000 from that employer. She pleaded no contest to grand theft in that case, was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay restitution. That evidence will be shown to the jury this week.