CLEVELAND — An Exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation has uncovered Ohio doctors accused of everything from sex trafficking to failure to pay taxes have received thousands of dollars in federal stimulus funds.
We reviewed federal data, Ohio Medical Board disciplinary records, and court documents to identity doctors with questionable backgrounds.
Meanwhile, hardworking Ohioans struggling to obtain stimulus fund relief are stunned by the findings.
Ami Ameduri had to repeatedly apply for funding to keep her “Cleveland Home Out” store afloat.
“As a small business owner, we really struggled to get funding,” says Ameduri, adding “a lot of businesses didn’t get that so it’s kind of shocking that there wasn’t some kind of filter system.”
A review of data obtained from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reveals 10,166 health care providers in Ohio received $989.7 million in stimulus funds without ever having to apply, no background check or eligibility requirements and no requirement to pay the money back.
The funds were part of $30 billion nationwide distributed in the initial round of funding to help health care providers facing the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
The money was automatically sent to health care providers based on previous billing with the Center for Medicare & Medicaid.
Among the most alarming cases involves an Ohio doctor indicted last March on federal sex tracking charges.
Dr. Manish Raj Gupta is accused of using “force, fraud and coercion to compel a woman to engage in commercial sex by drugging her without her consent”.
Dr. Gupta has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.
But just weeks after the indictment, Dr Gupta was awarded $3,249 in Cares Act Funding.
And he’s not alone.
Our investigation found at least 14 others, including doctors accused of having sex with patients, voyeurism and even doctor with an expired license who received $5,000.
In one case, we found a doctor convicted of attempting to solicit a prostitute received $26,000 in COVID Relief Funds.
We shared our findings with the “Project On Government Oversight”, a leading Washington D.C. based watchdog group.
“It’s beyond distasteful,” says Elizabeth Hempowicz, Director of Public Policy. “It’s improper use of taxpayer funds to reward that kind of behavior in a crisis like we’re in right now.”
The “Project On Government Oversight” provides a stimulus fund tracker that show how funds are being spent.
In other cases, we found that a doctor convicted of illegally providing unapproved drugs received $35,000, and another owing more than $12,000 in unpaid state taxes.
Ronald W. Chapman II is a nationally recognized health care defense attorney who has already received calls from doctors saying, “I received a lot of money, I’m not sure what to do with it, how do I act?”
Chapman says those are the calls he likes to get because “at least I can help them with the problem.”
Samuel J. Louis is a former federal prosecutor who once headed up a Justice Department fraud task force who says his firm has sent out letters to clients to inform them of any possible legal consequences and offer advice that can include sending the money back if there are any compelling legal issues in the provider’s background.
Louis says that while there are “some folks that, it’s like, 'Wow—this doesn’t have to be repaid, let me see if I can finagle a way to keep the money,'” he advises clients to be forthcoming and honest if there are any possible legal consequences that could negatively impact their cases.
Because doctors did not actually apply for funds, or submit fraudulent application, there’s little chance of fraud being committed.
Still, it worries former federal prosecutors, like Paul Pelletier, who fears the ease at which federal funds were disbursed raises alarms.
“In my experience as a federal prosecutor with more than 25 years—that’s where fraudsters enter the marketplace—it’s a vacuum for fraudsters.”
As a result of investigation, Sen. Sherrod Brown is promising to explore increasing oversight over how stimulus funds are awarded.
“I’m concerned since this station did this investigation," Brown said, adding, “We need to do oversight to make sure these dollars are spent appropriately.”