When United Airlines Flight 143 hit Bush Intercontinental's tarmac at 5:18 a.m., the Lagos overnighter came with a long-sought passenger: a handcuffed Nigerian fugitive who absconded from Houston days after his boss and co-workers were indicted in a $45 million Medicare scam.
The extradition of Godwin Chiedo Nzeocha marked a beguiling chapter in the case of a bogus Houston physical therapy clinic called City Nursing Services and accusations of Medicare fraud, money laundering and luxury living with American tax dollars.
Indictments of multiple characters in the scheme include allegations of using proceeds from the fraud to ship money and vehicles -- including 80 18-wheelers -- from Houston to Nigeria and stashing cash in Nigerian bank accounts. More than $831,000 sits idle in a Bank of America account in the United States.
Nzeocha's unusual return to Houston in June punctuates the intricate connections between him and Nigerian associates who have been arrested, convicted, sentenced or sent to prison in a conspiracy to steal from the nation's largest insurer for the elderly and the disabled.
All are accused of conspiring to pay recruiters to find patients, who also were paid to fill out bogus or blank claims forms submitted to Medicare for treatment never delivered.
After prodding from U.S. prosecutors, Nzeocha was arrested by Nigerian police at the home he shared with his parents in Lagos, having traced him through the address he used when he opened the Nigerian accounts. His attorney, Edmond O'Suji says there's no proof, despite his name on the account, that they belong to his client.
"He said they're (accounts) not his," the defense attorney said.
Pamela Ise, another player who supposedly helped orchestrate phony billing claims, also is a fugitive and believed to be in Nigeria.
9 are indicted
Of the $45 million City Nursing tried to bill to Medicare from its now-locked offices on the second floor of 9888 Bissonnet, $30 million landed in the hands of its employees, all of it approved by the nation's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Nine people were indicted; six have been convicted and sent to prison.
"This is not your usual case because of the amount of the fraud in the (single) indictment," Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Redlinger said of City Nursing after leaving Nzeocha's initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate George Hanks Jr.
City Nursing's owner Umawa Oke Imo is serving a 27-year federal prison sentence, and a West University anesthesiologist he hired to evaluate the phony patients is serving 11 years. His office manager was sentenced to 12.
Three others who were paid to recruit patients for the scam pleaded guilty, and a fourth worker has yet to be tried.
Sean Buckley, attorney for Imo, says the scheme's architects were Nigerian fugitives Ise and Nzeocha, who acted as physical therapist aide.
"He (Imo) did not realize that Pamela Ise and Godwin Nzeocha had been fictitiously billing the Medicare program for services that had no basis in reality," Buckley said.
But records reviewed by the Houston Chronicle show Imo in 2008 paid Nzeocha $109,000. When asked why such a check would be paid to an unlicensed physical therapy aide, the defense attorney had no comment.
Nzeocha is accused of paying patient recruiters and doctoring patient files and documents so it would appear that City Nursing provided physical therapy services. Nzeocha's attorney said he believes his client did nothing illegal.
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