Perhaps in an attempt to find the truth behind what President Trump has decried as “fake news,” requests for government documents under the Freedom of Information Act have soared since he took office, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Syracuse University.
The 63 public record lawsuits filed in April represented a 25-year high, said officials at The FOIA Project at the Newhouse School at the New York university said. Further, with 60 lawsuits filed already in May, it, too, is likely to be another record-setting month, they said.
Information sought includes records on Trump’s executive orders and last month’s missile attack on Syria. Lawsuits have also been filed to get warrant applications for surveillance activities and internal agency communications about China. People and organizations are also seeking paperwork about actions taken by the new director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and border searches by the Department of Homeland Security.
If the pace continues, university officials said they expect more than 579 public records lawsuits will be filed before the fiscal year ends in Sept. 30. By comparison, 512 Freedom of Information Act lawsuits were filed during the last fiscal year of the Obama Administration.
Dr. Salomon Melgen’s practice of using a single vial of a drug to treat multiple elderly patients for a wet macular degeneration went from being a bonanza to a bust, according to those who testified Wednesday in the Palm Beach County ophthalmologist’s trial on 76 charges of health care fraud.
When the U.S. Supreme Court two weeks ago refused to hear Melgen’s appeal in his long-running dispute with federal health regulators, it dashed his hopes of recouping millions he repaid Medicare when it claimed he wrongly used one vial of the pricey drug Lucentis to treat as many as four patients, a practice known as multi-dosing.
But federal prosecutors, who claim Melgen bilked Medicare out of as much as $105 million by multi-dosing, misdiagnosing and mistreating scores of elderly patients, said millions more are at stake.
The high court’s decision means Melgen won’t be able to get back the $8.9 million he repaid Medicare for multi-dosing patients at clinics in West Palm Beach, Wellington, Delray Beach and Port St. Lucie in 2007 and 2008. But, Medicare officials also want the wealthy, politically-connected retinal specialist to repay another roughly $32 million for multi-dosing patients from 2009 to 2013.
An attorney, whose Washington-based firm has been paid about $5 million to represent Melgen in his unsuccessful legal battle with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, told a federal jury that Melgen is appealing the agency’s claims that he owes it additional money. The appeals, attorney Alan Reider acknowledged, could stretch on for years.
Melgen’s attorneys – including one that works for the same Washington, D.C. law firm as Reider – argued that Melgen’s practice of multi-dosing didn’t cost the Medicare program a dime. Had Melgen bought separate vials of Lucentis for each of his patients, the agency would have reimbursed Melgen roughly $2,000 for each one.
But, prosecutors countered, the practice was lucrative for Melgen. Instead of buying separate vials of Lucentis for three or sometimes four patients, he bought one. But he was reimbursed as if he bought one for each patient.
That means if he used one vial to treat three patients, instead of getting back roughly $2,000 for a single vial, he got back about $6,000. If he used it to treat four patients, he got nearly $8,000.
The trial, which began last month, continues today. Melgen also faces corruption charges in New Jersey along with his longtime friend, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez. His multi-dosing of Lucentis, and Menendez’s attempts to intervene in his dispute with federal regulators, figure into the prosecution’s case there as well.
The retrial of the multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Palm Beach County sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Custer in the 2012 shooting death of Seth Adams will be held before a different federal judge as early as July 10.
In an order signed Monday, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley, who presided over the trial that ended last month with a hung jury, assigned the case to his colleague, federal Judge Donald Middlebrooks.
Hurley, who reportedly planned to retire before the summer, had scheduled the second trial to begin Oct. 10. But, in the order, he said attorneys for Adams’ parents and the sheriff’s office indicated they wanted it to be held sooner. Both sides agreed to a July 10 start, he said.
Middlebrooks agreed to hear the case, Hurley wrote. He told the attorneys to consult with Middlebrooks’ staff to see if the trial could be held sooner.
After a month-long trial, the nine jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict about whether Custer used excessive force when he fatally shot the 23-year-old as Adams returned to A One Stop Garden Shop in Loxahatchee Groves, where he lived and worked with his brother and sister-in-law.
Attorney Wallace McCall, who talked to some of the jurors after the trial, said he was told there was one hold out. He had sought $10 million to $20 million for Lydia and Richard Adams, claiming Custer lied when he said Adams attacked him and the sheriff’s office helped him cover up the truth.
The sheriff’s office has said that Custer, who was working undercover on the night of the shooting, was in fear for his life.
A devout Roman Catholic, he has eight adult children.
He will preside in the upcoming health-care fraud trial of Palm Beach County ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. Separately, Melgen faces corruption charges in New Jersey with his longtime pal U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey.
Some of Marra’s other notable cases include: Joseph Zada, who was convicted of mail fraud for stealing at least $37 million from an estimated 45 victims, including former NHL hockey star Sergei Fedorov. He is also handling a case in which victims of sexual abuse by Palm Beach resident Jeffrey Epstein are accusing federal prosecutors of violating the Victims’ Rights Act by not telling them about the non-prosecution agreement they signed.
In ruling against Trump on Wednesday, in a decision involving Trump National Golf Club Jupiter, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra made it clear he meant the new president no disrespect when he referred to him simply as Donald Trump or D. Trump throughout the 22-page order.
“At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Donald J. Trump was a private citizen. As a result, the Court will refer to him as such in this decision. In doing so, the Court means no disrespect to him or to the esteemed position he now holds.”
In a one-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra ruled in favor of members who filed suit against Trump National Golf Club Jupiter on Donald Ross Road. He awarded them $4.8 million plus $925,000 in interest.
In a statement, the Trump Organization vowed to appeal.
At a trial in August, members argued that under Trump’s ownership they had been soaked for millions. Trump purchased the ailing club from The Ritz Carlton for $5 million in 2012. The bargain price came with the understanding that he was responsible for the $41 million that Ritz-Carlton GolfClub & Spa owed members in refundable deposits.
Contrary to Ritz-Carlton’s policies, Trump ownership rules bar members from the club once they announce their intentions to resign. Even though they can’t use the club, they are still billed $8,000 to $20,000 a year for dues and must pay an $1,800 annual fee for food and beverages. Because most have to wait until five new members join before their deposit will be refunded, those bills will continue to mount for years.
Trump, then hot on the campaign trail, testified by videotape. His son, Eric, who oversees the club along with 17 others owned by The Trump Organization, claimed the members were just disgruntled and eventually would get their money back when new members joined.
In the statement, a spokesperson for the Trump Organization wrote: “We respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision. The plaintiffs were all members under Ritz Carlton who resigned before Trump purchased the Club. At the time Trump purchased the Club, it was suffering financially, making it unlikely that these members would ever get back their deposits. At trial, we presented overwhelming evidence that the plaintiffs’ memberships were never recalled and that the plaintiffs had waived this argument during the course of the litigation.”
Treatment center operator Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman on Thursday pleaded not guilty to a sweeping 17-count indictment that accuses him of money laundering, health-care fraud and sex trafficking, a charge that could send him to prison to life.
The indictment, handed up Tuesday, showcases federal prosecutors plan to shut down what they called the 46-year-old suburban Boynton Beach man’s illicit drug treatment empire that stretched from Mangonia Park in Palm Beach County to Plantation in Broward County and brought in an estimated $5.4 million.
The five others, who were released on bond after being charged in a criminal complaint last month, also pleaded not guilty to the new charges this week. A sixth, who was not originally charged, is to appear in court Monday.
“It’s the beginning of a long journey,” Chatman’s attorney Saam Zangeneh said after the brief hearing before U.S. Magistrate William Matthewman. He pledged to vigorously defend Chatman, who remains jailed as a flight risk and a danger to the community.
At a previous hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie Villafana suggested she would also ask a grand jury to indict Chatman in connection with overdose deaths that she said occurred at the sober homes he operated. But, she said, those charges would take more time to prepare. Chatman was not charged in connection with any deaths.
Still the charges he faces in connection with his involvement with Journey to Recovery in suburban Lake Worth and Reflections Treatment Center in Margate along with dozens of sober homes are serious. Journey to Recovery and Reflections were both licensed drug treatment centers. As a convicted felon, Chatman was barred from holding the licenses so he and his wife illegally told authorities she was operating them, according to the indictment.
Rather than treating patients, the indictment claims Chatman made a fortune by taking advantage of them along with insurance companies. He turned female patients into prostitutes. He paid kickbacks to five laboratories – in South and Central Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania – to get them to test bogus urine samples, according to the indictment.
In addition to Chatman and his wife, also indicted were: Joaquin Mendez and Donald Willems, both doctors; Fransesia Davis, who worked at the two treatment centers; Michael Bonds, a sober home operator; and Stefan Gatt, who worked at a lab in Central Florida.
The saga of efforts to seize a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy’s belongings to pay the expenses of a West Palm Beach man he shot and paralyzed took another turn on Tuesday when attorneys challenged the value he claimed his possessions are worth.
In court papers, attorney Jack Scarola, who represents Dontrell Stephens, accused Sgt. Adams Lin of understating the value of his car, his television and a Play Station. They are the only belongings Lin said he owns that are worth more than $25. In total, he said, his possessions, excluding his car, are worth less than $4,000.
Also, while Lin in court papers set the value of his two dogs and a cat at $100, a spokesman for Scarola said neither those pets nor an aquarium with fish were seized. By law, Lin was required to list the value of all of his possessions worth more than $25, the spokesman said.
A hearing will be held before U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer on Wednesday to determine if Lin will get his belongings back. He is allowed to retain $4,000 worth of his possessions, according to the state law. He claims he owes more on his 2014 Dodge Challenger than the $22,000 claims it is worth. Scarola claims it has been modified at a cost of $13,000, making it far more valuable.
Lin’s belongings were seized by court order on Jan. 7 from Lin’s home to defray a $22.4 million judgment Scarola won for Stephens last year. Stephens, 23, who was paralyzed after he was shot by Lin in 2013, is destitute, Scarola said.
The judgment is also against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. Scarola said he wants Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to pay Stephens the $200,000 he agency will be legally required to pay if the verdict is upheld on appeal. Bradshaw, he said, has refused.
Under Florida law, $200,000 is the most government agencies can be required to pay for wrongdoing. To get more, the Florida Legislature must pay a claims bill, lifting the cap.
Fort Lauderdale airport shooter Esteban Santiago Ruiz was denied bond during a brief hearing on Tuesday where new details emerged about his mental state that prompted the Jan. 6 rampage that left five dead and six injured.
Santiago, 26, an Iraq veteran who lived in Anchorage, Alaska, didn’t request bond. Even if he had, U.S. Magistrate Lurana Snow indicated she would not grant it.
“There’s no choice. Much of the danger to the community is on camera,” she said, referring to airport video that shows Santiago methodically gunning down travelers near the baggage claim area in Terminal 2 of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Further, facing the death penalty or at least life in prison, Santiago has no reason to stay and stand trial, she said.
While news outlets have reported that Santiago went to the Anchorage FBI office in November to report that he was hearing voices and believed his mind was controlled by the CIA, Special FBI Agent Michael Ferlazzo testified that the former U.S. Army reservist wasn’t prescribed any psychotropic medicine when he was committed to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute for evaluation.
“He was released with no medical prescriptions,” he testified. While in the hospital Santiago was treated with anti-anxiety drugs. “He was deemed stable,” he said of Santiago’s hospital discharge papers. A gun he turned over to Alaskan authorities – the same one used in the airport shooting – was returned to him, the agent said.
While Santiago initially told Broward County sheriff’s deputies that voices told him to kill, when he was interviewed by the FBI hours later, talk turned to his interest in ISIL, Ferlazzo said. “We were discussing jihadist chat rooms he visited” on the “dark web,” the agent said.
During interviews, Santiago said he was in contact online with those affiliated with the Islamic terrorist organization – “like-minded individuals who were all planning attacks,” Ferlazzo said. No foreign group has accepted responsibility for the shooting rampage and Ferlazzo didn’t say whether Santiago’s claims had been verified. He did say that Santiago’s computer and those of his family, who live in Naples and Puerto Rico, had been seized.
Assistant Public Defender Robert Berube interviewed Ferlazzo at length while Santiago sat at a table dressed in a red jail jumpsuit, indicating he is considered high risk. The only time Santiago spoke was when the magistrate asked him if he agreed to a delay in a preliminary hearing. “Yes,” he answered, giving permission for the hearing to be delayed until Jan. 30.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Del Toro said Santiago confessed to planning the killing spree. In October, Santiago bought the gun and practiced at an Anchorage area shooting range. Then, he bought a one-way ticket on a Delta flight to Fort Lauderdale. It left Anchorage with one stop in Minneapolis. His only luggage was a gun case that contained a Walther 9-millimeter handgun.
Once Santiago retrieved the gun from airline officials, he went into a bathroom near the baggage claim area, loaded it and stuck it in the waistband of his pants, Del Toro said. “He pulled the gun out of his waistband and fired 15 rounds, aiming at victims heads,” Del Toro said. The five who died ranged in age from 57 to 84 years old. The injured were 40 to 70 years old.
“There’s no conditions or combination of conditions that can secure the safety of the community,” he said.
Daphne Felisma, wife of accused Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy Frantz Felisma, collapsed outside a federal courtroom in West Palm Beach Thursday after a judge denied bond for her husband.
Paramedics took her to the hospital after she fainted. Her husband, who faces identity theft charges, should remain behind bars because of the serious nature of the offense and, with family in Haiti, he is a flight risk, U.S. Magistrate James Hopkins said at the conclusion of a roughly two-hour hearing.
“I can’t imagine a much more serious offense than this,” Hopkins said. “For a law enforcement officer to be selling his position and selling law enforcement information to a known fraudster is one of the most serious crimes I can possibly imagine.”
Daphne Felisma started sobbing after Hopkins announced his decision. She tried to reach her husband as U.S. marshals led him out of the courtroom. Grabbed by marshals, she was ushered into the hallway where she collapsed. About 50 friends and family members, many crying, were also ordered from the courtroom.
Frantz Felisma, 42, of Boynton Beach, is accused of using law enforcement databases to get personal information about at least 50 people who owned expensive cars and selling the information to Kesner Joaseus, federal prosecutors said. Joaseus, who pleaded guilty to identity theft and other fraud charges in August, reported Felisma’s involvement to police. Joaseus set up credit card and bank accounts over 18 months, stealing an estimated $250,000, prosecutors said.
Joaseus told prosecutors he offered to pay Felisma $10,000 a month for the information but it is unclear how much he was paid or where the money went, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Jorgensen said. Felisma’s bank account showed about $14,000 in unusual transactions from January 2013 until June 2014, she told Hopkins.
“Criminals don’t necessarily deposit money from a criminal enterprise,” she said.
Knowing Joaseus had been convicted of mortgage fraud, Felisma claimed he was investigating his activities. “I’m going to nail him,” his attorney Jason Kreiss said he told investigators.
Kreiss said Felisma maintains his innocence and is likely to ask a federal judge to overturn Hopkins’ decision to deny him bond. The appeals process could take more than two weeks.