Thirty-Three Defendants Charged in Staged Automobile Accident Scheme
Ninety-Two Defendants Have Been Charged to Date in Operation Sledgehammer I-VI
|U.S. Attorney’s Office May 16, 2013|
Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida; Michael B. Steinbach, Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Miami Field Office; Michael J. DePalma, Acting Special Agent in Charge, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI); Jeff Atwater, Florida Chief Financial Officer; and Dave Aronberg, State Attorney, Office of the State Attorney for Palm Beach County, announced the unsealing of a federal indictment and three separate criminal informations charging 33 defendants, including doctors, licensed professionals, and clinic owners, for their participation in a massive staged automobile accident scheme based in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties, Florida. Of the 33 defendants charged, 26 were arrested or are expected to surrender. Four of the defendants are known to have fled to Cuba, with an additional three of the defendants have not been located at this time and are considered fugitives.
The charges announced today are the culmination of a three-year joint federal and state law enforcement investigation, dubbed Operation Sledgehammer, into a series of chiropractic clinics that were allegedly involved in staged accidents and filing false insurance claims. Starting with Operation Sledgehammer I in June 2011 and including the defendants charged today in Operation Sledgehammer VI, 92 defendants have been charged for their participation in this automobile insurance fraud scheme. Of those 92 defendants, 56 have been charged federally by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, resulting in court-ordered restitution of more than $5 million to the defrauded insurance companies. Thirty-six defendants have been charged by the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office.
Operation Sledgehammer VI, announced today, has resulted in a second superseding indictment and three separate criminal informations charging 33 defendants. The second superseding indictment charges 30 individuals, including ring leaders Vladimir Lopez and Lazaro Vigoa Mauri, with conspiracy to commit and substantive mail fraud (counts one–91), conspiracy to commit and substantive money laundering (counts 92-153), and conspiracy to and actual structuring of financial transactions (counts 154-183). The indictment also seeks the forfeiture of proceeds of the fraud, including $714,621 in currency, and any real or personal property derived from the fraud. In addition, defendants Lawrence Schechtman, 45, Parkland; Olinda Rodriguez, 39, West Palm Beach; and Iris Roca, 41, of Davie, were charged in three separate informations for their participation in staged accident fraud schemes. These three defendants will be surrendering to the court.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo A, Ferrer stated, “Staged accident automobile insurance fraud is not a victimless crime. Rather, it affects every driver in Florida, as fraud inevitably causes our insurance rates to rise. Worse still, staged accidents make our streets more dangerous and distract police from answering legitimate distress calls. We hope that this continued operation will send a message to those who seek to line their pockets through fraud. Together with our federal and state law enforcement, regulatory and private industry partners, we will find you, we will prosecute you, we will take away your ill-gotten money, and you will face substantial prison time.”
“If you get upset about your car insurance premiums going up, this crime is one of the reasons why,” said William J. Maddalena, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of FBI Miami. “Every time an insurance payout is made for a staged accident in Florida, we all feel the pain in the pocketbook. The FBI and our partners with the Greater Palm Beach Health Care Fraud Task Force will continue to use all investigative techniques to bring to justice those responsible for this type of fraud.”
“Consistently, law-breakers try to hide their crimes by laundering their ill-gotten gains and by structuring financial transactions to avoid detection by law enforcement. Today’s indictment reflects the futility of that strategy,” said IRS-CI Acting Special Agent in Charge Michael J. DePalma. “By following the money trail, IRS-CI agents will continue to aggressively target these defendants’ finances and their freedom.”
“These staged accidents are the lifeblood of Personal Injury Protection (PIP) fraud, which has cast a shadow over Florida’s roads,” Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said. “Every Florida family is negatively affected by these fake crashes in the form of high auto insurance premiums. I am proud of the collaborative efforts across local, state and federal agencies to put these criminals behind bars.”
According to the charging documents, between approximately October 2006 and December 2012, the defendants staged automobile accidents and thereafter caused the submission of false insurance claims through chiropractic clinics they controlled. To execute the scheme, the true owners of the chiropractic clinics allegedly recruited individuals, who had the medical or chiropractic licenses required by the state to open a clinic, to act as “nominee owners” of the clinics. The defendants also recruited individuals, whom they referred to as “Perro” and “Perra,” to participate in the accidents, and others to help the clinics launder the insurance proceeds. The defendants also hired complicit chiropractors and therapists who prescribed and billed for unnecessary treatments and/or for services that had not been rendered. Thereafter, complicit clinic employees prepared and submitted claims to the automobile insurance companies for payment for these unnecessary or non-rendered services. Twenty-one clinics participated in this scheme.
If convicted, the defendants face the following possible maximum statutory sentences: 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, substantive mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering; 20 years for each count of substantive money laundering; five years for conspiracy to structure financial transactions, and 10 years for structuring financial transactions involving more than $100,000 in one year. Restitution to the victims of the offenses is mandatory.
Mr. Ferrer commended the efforts of the FBI, IRS-CI, the Florida Department of Insurance Fraud, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, and the Greater Palm Beach County Health Care Fraud Task Force for their outstanding work in this case. Mr. Ferrer also recognized the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) for its collaboration and assistance in this investigation. Mr. Ferrer thanked the U.S. Marshal’s Service and Customs and Border Protection for their assistance in today’s arrests. The federal cases are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Marie Villafaña and the state cases are being prosecuted by the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office.
An indictment or information is only an accusation and a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.