Eager to find highly sought-after medical professionals, University of Maryland Medical Center offered its employees bonuses of up to $5,000 each time they referred an applicant who joined the hospital staff.
Paula Anderson, an administrative assistant at the medical center's human resources department, was a good employee and "a team player," a former boss said. But prosecutors said yesterday that greed took over.
Anderson was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday to 18 months in prison followed by 12 months of home detention for her role as the ringleader in an elaborate scheme to bilk the referral program.
Prosecutors said Anderson persuaded fellow employees - including her mother - to file referral forms for prospective employees they had never met and then kick back up to two-thirds of their bonuses to her.
Eight other former hospital employees - including Anderson's mother, Claret Clemons, who is to be sentenced this month - have also been prosecuted.
The criminal scheme - a federal offense because the medical center receives funding from Medicaid and Medicare - cost the hospital $317,811 from 2003 to 2005. In sentencing Anderson, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett ordered her to repay that amount to the medical center.
"The nature and circumstances of this offense are egregious," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie Greenberg, who prosecuted the case. "She twisted the program on its head. [The other participants] went along with Miss Anderson's greed. She's the one in charge of this. She's the one in human resources. ... She's the one that was facilitating everything."
Anderson's court-appointed defense attorney, former city state's attorney and former candidate for state attorney general Stuart O. Simms, disputed that characterization.
"She was a doorkeeper of sorts," Simms said. "She wasn't in a position to sort of be the bandleader."
Anderson, whose husband and teenage son joined her in court, tearfully apologized before she was sentenced.
"Out of my work history, that was the best job I had," Anderson said. "I hurt my family. ... I don't know how I can fix that. I'm sorry. I can't say how sorry I am about the whole situation."
Keith Dickerson, a former hospital employee who participated in the kickback scheme, testified that he cashed three referral checks worth a total of $12,000 and split them with Anderson.
"Paula handed me a referral bonus form. ... I was going along with this as a way to get extra money," said Dickerson, who has pleaded guilty and is also to be sentenced this month.
Hospital representatives have declined to comment on the case but said in a statement this year that a new verification process for the program has been put into effect and "is working well."
Prosecutors had argued that Anderson's sentence should fall within the upper range of the federal sentencing guidelines, 37 to 46 months in prison. The judge took into account her "difficult" upbringing, which she turned around to become "a commendable citizen," he said.
"This grab-bag mentality, taking federal funding from an institution, just can't be tolerated," said Bennett. "Miss Anderson, I want to wish you the best of luck. You made a big mistake, and you're going to pay the price."
Bennett recommended that Anderson, who will report to prison in 60 days, serve her time at the minimum-security federal detention center for women in Alderson, W.Va.