Two men linked by federal prosecutors to one of the most notorious health care scams in recent local history are back in business as part owners and directors of a treatment center with a new client base: teenage girls and women suffering from eating disorders and other serious emotional problems.
Prosecutors said in court filings that the influential business partners, psychiatrist Jay Reibel and Washington attorney Roger Barth, approved bribes, fueling a massive patient-brokering scheme that harmed vulnerable and disabled nursing home residents and reportedly cost Medicare millions of dollars. There were four convictions in the case, although Reibel and Barth were not charged with any crime and strongly deny wrongdoing.
Four years after their psychiatric hospital, Rock Creek, closed amid scandal in 2002, Barth and Reibel refurbished the same wooded Lemont property and reopened as Timberline Knolls, a $995-a-day treatment facility for troubled girls and women from across the country.
The new center has been credited with saving lives but has faced a handful of patient complaints to the Illinois state attorney general about its medical and financial practices. The facility also posted treatment success claims that medical experts called misleading — but withdrew those claims from its Web site after the Tribune raised questions. Timberline Knolls eventually provided figures showing that it shares the significant failure rate typical of these types of facilities.
Barth and Reibel declined to comment, but their attorney called the prosecutors' repeated statements about their involvement in the bribes-for-patients operation "false" and "patently unfair."
"Words are cheap," said their attorney, John Brennan. "Reibel and Barth were not involved in paying bribes to anybody. ... Those allegations have not been proven. If they were as stated, the government would have brought the case against them."
Prosecutors declined to comment. Reibel and Barth were not identified by name in the indictments of the four Rock Creek defendants. But in a subsequent court filing called a Santiago proffer that outlined the government's case, as well as in several other court motions, prosecutors identified both Barth and Reibel by name as unindicted "co-conspirators" and "targets of the government's investigation."
Brennan emphasized that the allegations against them were made not in an indictment that must pass the hurdle of a grand jury, but in other court documents that Brennan said carry less weight. He called prosecutors' statements about his clients "hollow" because Barth and Reibel never had an opportunity to challenge them in court or clear their names.
Although Barth and Reibel helped found the new center — with Barth serving as its first president — a group of outside investors poured millions of dollars into the facility and now holds slightly more than a 50 percent ownership stake and three of five directors' seats, records and interviews show.
James Gresham, an investor who in 2008 took control of day-to-day operations of Timberline Knolls as CEO, said he and the other investors had no idea — until told by reporters — that prosecutors had placed Reibel and to a lesser extent Barth at the center of the fraud and patient-brokering case.
"Timberline management and ownership is all deeply concerned and alarmed about the new information that has been revealed by the Tribune," Gresham said. "We are in the process of examining the information. ... We're taking this extremely seriously."
Gresham said he is consulting with his management team about what steps he and the investors could take next.
Barth and Reibel have a long history together, including serving in the Nixon administration. As an assistant to the Internal Revenue Service commissioner, Barth was named in a U.S. Senate investigation into the administration's alleged misuse of confidential tax records to gather information on political enemies in the Watergate scandal, although Barth testified that his activities were entirely normal and proper, according to congressional and court records and media reports. Barth went on to hold various Republican Party positions, including tax counsel to the party's national committee, while Reibel has been a top fundraiser.
Brennan described Barth as "a very bright man" and Reibel as "a very intelligent, honorable man who has been in the health care business for many years with an unblemished reputation."
But their Lemont facility came under federal investigation starting in the late 1990s as Rock Creek aggressively sought to fill beds with a steady flow of destitute patients, court records show. From 2000 through 2002, hospital administrators paid huge bribes to Dr. Roland Borrasi and his medical partners, who shuttled in scores of unwitting nursing home residents and homeless people for medically unnecessary treatments, court records show. Federal anti-kickback laws prohibit facilities from offering payments in exchange for referring Medicaid or Medicare patients.
Although former Rock Creek CEO Wendy Mamoon and operations chief Mahmood Baig "orchestrated the kickbacks that Rock Creek paid to Borrasi," prosecutors wrote, Mamoon and Baig "obtained permission and, at times, direction, to pay the illegal payments from Rock Creek's owner and Chairman, Jay Reibel, and the hospital's General Counsel, Roger Barth."
Reibel and others "agreed to pay approximately $647,204 in direct bribes to Borrasi" as well as indirect bribes made to Borrasi's medical colleagues, while Barth approved some of those illicit payments, prosecutors wrote in court documents. Prosecutors also asserted that Reibel worked with others "to conceal the bribes" by using "false time sheets ... bogus committee appointments and ... inflated job descriptions."
In one instance, Baig, who in February was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his part in the scheme, told federal agents that Mamoon called him into her office as she conferred on speakerphone with Reibel and then with Barth about a deal to pay for Borrasi's office rent and secretary in exchange for increasing patient referrals. Baig told agents that Reibel wanted Barth to OK the deal but said that "if the arrangement would bring in more patients, then he was in agreement." Prosecutors said the payments were made. Mamoon and Borrasi also were convicted.
Brennan acknowledged that Reibel and Barth oversaw payments to Borrasi but said they were "not aware of the corrupt intent and purpose of the payments" because Mamoon, Baig and others hid the scheme from Barth and Reibel.
"People Reibel trusted betrayed him," Brennan said. "Reibel as owner of that hospital was victimized by this cadre of criminals."
Rock Creek owed Medicare more than $5 million when it closed in 2002, according to a government investigative report obtained by the Tribune, although former Rock Creek CEO Robert Mansfield told investigators that the Medicare debt was actually $17 million.
The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services declined to comment on whether the government ever determined how much Rock Creek owed taxpayers or whether CMS tried to recover any of that money.
"CMS does not comment on ongoing investigations," said the agency's Chicago spokeswoman Elizabeth Surgener.
Even before the indictments were handed down in the Rock Creek case, Reibel and Barth had secured investors to help launch Timberline Knolls. It opened in early 2006 amid a wave of for-profit residential treatment centers established to serve the millions of women in the U.S. afflicted with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
As the operation has grown, so have its revenues, which increased to $11.5 million last year from $7 million in 2007. The 87-bed campus currently has a waiting list, Gresham said.
Despite taking in millions of dollars from local school districts to house, treat and educate teens sent to the facility because of their problems, Timberline Knolls has shown losses on its balance sheet. In part that's because of the roughly $1.2 million-per-year rent owed to a Barth and Reibel land company that still owns the property.
Barth and Reibel also own nearly half of the Timberline Knolls operating company and remain involved as two of the five voting board members.
But today, Gresham said, they "have no operational control of this business. I am on the ground making decisions."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun