MIAMI -- A federal judge on Friday slammed the mastermind of the nation's biggest mental health scam with a 50-year prison sentence -- the longest term ever imposed on a Medicare fraud offender.
Lawrence Duran, 49, convicted this year of directing a $205 million racket at his Miami-based chain of clinics, showed no emotion as U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King gave him the equivalent of a life sentence.
Duran's lawyer, Lawrence Metsch, had urged the judge to be realistic and give him a sentence between 20 and 25 years, arguing that 50 years means a "death sentence because he would die in prison."
But the judge, after a three-day sentencing hearing, sided with the government's push for the extraordinarily high sentence, saying there is a "critical need for deterrence against healthcare fraud" in South Florida, the nation's capital of Medicare corruption. Previously, the highest Medicare fraud sentence was 30 years -- given in 2008 to a Miami physician convicted in an HIV-therapy scheme.
Duran, in custody since his arrest last October, was probably his own worst enemy during the sentencing hearing. Although he showed remorse for running American Therapeutic Corp. as a criminal enterprise for eight years, he also admitted he tried to steal as much money as he could from the taxpayer-funded Medicare program.
His company collected $87 million in Medicare payments after submitting $205 million in bogus bills, which he generated by paying kickbacks to recruiters to supply patients suffering from dementia, Alzheimer's and addictions. He admitted they could not have benefited from his company's purported group therapy sessions.
Justice Department attorney Jennifer Saulino called Duran a "cold, calculating man" who exploited both vulnerable patients and the government's health care program for the elderly and disabled.
Saulino pressured Duran repeatedly to admit what he did with his company's Medicare millions, accusing him of not coming clean with the government.
"I'm facing a life sentence," Duran testified Friday. "Do you think I would hold back on where the money is? If there were a cent, I would tell you where it is."
Duran said that after paying hundreds of employees including himself, every spare cent was used for kickbacks to generate patients for his seven-clinic chain, which stretched from Miami to Orlando.
But at one point, Duran said he lived a "middle-class life" while operating his multimillion-dollar conspiracy -- despite buying a Maserati, sending his three children to private schools and paying for his ex-wife's home in North Miami near Biscayne Bay. Saulino reminded him that it was an "extravagant" life, noting he earned between $1 million and $1.5 million yearly between 2003 and 2008 from his vast health care conspiracy.
Duran's girlfriend, Marinella Valera, 40, a therapist who co-owned American Therapeutic, also pleaded guilty to Medicare fraud charges this year. Her sentencing is scheduled for Friday. Prosecutors plan to urge the judge to give her a 40-year prison sentence.
A total of 34 people, including American Therapeutic employees, doctors, therapists, nurses and recruiters, have been charged in the massive fraud case, which is being investigated by the FBI and Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General.
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