PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Pinellas County officials confirm that secret settlement talks have been underway for weeks in connection with a whistleblower lawsuit filed in a Texas federal court, alleging a kickback scheme that defrauded Medicare and Medicaid.
“I look forward though, as soon as that settlement is signed, to sit down with you and have a full discussion on it,” said Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard.
Those talks, according to Woodward, as well as County Commissioner Dave Eggers and others, involves the U.S. Attorney in Texas, attorneys for the whistleblower who filed suit and the Pinellas County Attorney’s Office. The Florida Attorney General’s Office has also told 8 On Your Side it is wrapping up work on the case, but its not clear if that is a separate investigation or part of the settlement talks. The whistleblower lawsuit alleged violations of state and federal law regarding false claims and illegal kickbacks.
Pinellas County officials have known about the kickback allegations since January, but kept the matter under wraps until an 8 On Your Side story exposed it on February 13. They’ve been told by the county attorney a settlement is likely within weeks.
“I think the public will be very satisfied when the news finally comes out about this case,” said Pinellas County Commission Chairperson Janet Long. “In about three weeks I assume, or so I have been told.”
The federal lawsuit alleges that Pinellas County EMS and its sole ambulance provider Paramedics Plus, a private company that does business in Pinellas under the county-owned brand of Sunstar, systematically overcharged for ambulance services under a so-called “profit-cap” provision that resulted in “illegal kickbacks” to Pinellas County.
Woodard insists that the so-called kickbacks named in the suit amount to a one-time “profit cap refund” of $35,000 that ended up in a Pinellas County EMS trust fund–not somebody’s pocket.
Woodard claims that none of the bribery and payoffs alleged to have occurred in Oklahoma by Paramedics Plus happened in Pinellas. “To my knowledge it did not,” Woodard said.
Whatever happened, there is a fortune in taxpayer dollars at stake. The current Pinellas contract with Sunstar amounts to more than $50 million a year. Potential penalties cited by the whistleblower lawsuit could add up to millions.
The same whistleblower lawsuit alleges that Texas-based Paramedics Plus also engaged in the same kickback scheme in Oklahoma and Alameda, California. In Oklahoma, federal prosecutors claim that illegal kickbacks amounted to $20 million. The whistleblower suit alleges Paramedics Plus had a net revenue from the Pinellas contract of $150 million over a five yer period, including an estimated $90 million paid by government health programs. It does not cite a specific kickback amount here.
Federal prosecutors in Texas have further outlined specific and detailed allegations of bribery and political payoffs that Paramedics Plus committed in Oklahoma in a separate action filed in Texas. There are no specific bribery allegations by federal prosecutors aimed at Pinellas listed in documents filed in federal court.
Paramedics Plus insists it has done nothing wrong or illegal in any of its ambulance contracts in any jurisdiction, and will be vindicated in court, as the whistleblower lawsuit filed by one of its former top executives and U.S. Attorney’s intervention complaint progress in Texas and elsewhere.
RELATED: You Paid For It: Whistleblower lawsuit alleges millions in Pinellas Sunstar ambulance kickbacks
The Texas whistleblower lawsuit was actually filed in 2014, but was kept secret under a court seal until January, when a federal judge in Texas ordered the lawsuit unsealed, and the U.S Attorney in Texas filed a separate, but related complaint alleging widespread corruption practices between Paramedics Plus and government officials in Oklahoma.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and CFO Jeff Atwater were also notified in March of 2014, according to the whistleblower lawsuit. The Attorney General’s Office tells 8 On Your Side it is now involved in wrapping up its inquiry into the kickback allegations, but can’t comment beyond that. The Florida CFO’s Office did not return our repeated calls and emails asking for a response.
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