Flu Shot Fraud Indictment in Texas
Press Release: US Dept of Justice, US Attorney, Southern District of Texas, Chuck Rosenberg
November 17, 2005
Public Affairs Specialist
P. O. Box 61129 Houston, TX 77208
Phone: 713/567-9388 Fax: 713/718-3389
GRAND JURY INDICTS TWO FOR FAKE FLU VACCINE
(HOUSTON, TX) – United States Attorney Chuck Rosenberg today announced the unsealing of a 14-count federal indictment charging Iyad Abu El Hawa, 35, of Houston, and Martha Denise Gonzales, 48, of Baytown, with conspiracy and tampering with a consumer product. These charges stem from an investigation into a scheme to administer fake flu vaccines at several Houston-area locations. The investigation began in October 2005 after the FBI received information that fake flu vaccines may have been given at a health fair sponsored by ExxonMobil for its Baytown refinery employees.
El Hawa was arrested on October 27, 2005, and remains in federal custody, without bond, by court order. He will next appear in federal court for arraignment on a date to be set by the court. Gonzales was arrested by FBI agents early this morning at her home in Baytown, without incident. Gonzales is expected to appear before a United States Magistrate Judge today to be arraigned on the charges in this indictment. Conditions of her release (bail) or detention will be decided at that time.
The indictment accuses El Hawa and Gonzales of conspiring with one another, and others both known and unknown to the grand jury, to dispense fake flu vaccines in exchange for payment. Specifically, each is charged with conspiring to commit mail and health care fraud, tampering with a consumer product, and make materially false statements to federal agents. El Hawa and Gonzales are also charged with 13 separate counts of tampering with a consumer product; conduct that occurred between October 11, 2005, and October 21, 2005. These 13 tampering counts involve 13 separate individuals, who were given the fake flu vaccines at six different locations.
According to the indictment, El Hawa and Gonzales devised a scheme to defraud and to obtain money from insurances companies and health care benefit programs by offering and providing fake flu vaccines at health fairs. El Hawa allegedly owned, controlled or was associated with the following businesses that offered various medical services: Comfort & Caring Home Health; America Home Health Care Services; Universal Home Healthcare Services; and Universal Wound Care, all in Houston, and America Home Health Care Services in Baytown, Texas. According to the indictment part of the scheme was to employ licensed and non-licensed nursing and other office staff to lend a name, title, credibility and legitimacy to these businesses. The scheme included the use of these home health care businesses as “fronts” to market medical services to doctors, churches, senior residential and nursing homes, pharmacies, and pharmacy sales agents in Texas and elsewhere. The indictment also alleges that Gonzales used the U.S. Mail and interstate communication facilities to market fake flu vaccines to health fair sponsors in Texas and elsewhere.
According to the indictment, El Hawa’s work experience was largely in the food service industry. Gonzalez was employed in a non-medical position in a physician’s office.
El Hawa and Gonzales are alleged to have submitted and to have attempted to submit various charts and records to private insurance companies and to Medicare and Medicaid in support of requests for payment for fraudulent medical services provided at health fair events, and that they received or attempted to receive payment in the form of checks, wire transfers, and reimbursement for these fraudulent services. When payments were received, the indictment alleges the funds were used to pay the expenses of the home health care business and to finance their life styles.
“The defendants presumably owed a duty of care to their victims but, allegedly, their greed prevailed and they violated that duty,” said United States Attorney Chuck Rosenberg. “It would have been so very simple to administer flu vaccines properly, rather than to needlessly and callously put so many innocent people at risk.”
United States Attorney Rosenberg also announced the results of the tests performed on the substance contained in the sample of syringes submitted by the FBI to the FDA Laboratory:
“Test results confirmed that the fluid contained in the syringes was not the flu vaccine, but rather a form of purified water. The FDA discovered no harmful substance in the water nor any harmful bacteria on the syringes themselves. Though we do not have many of the syringes that were used, these results should provide a measure of comfort to the victims of this fraud,” Rosenberg noted.
Additionally, a person believed responsible for filling the syringes used at the ExxonMobil Health Fair in October 2005 voluntarily submitted to testing for blood borne pathogens. The results of those tests were negative for HIV and Hepatitis.
The conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of five (5) years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. The charge of tampering with a consumer product carries a maximum penalty of ten (10) years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. The penalty range for the tampering charge increases to 20 years imprisonment if the offense caused serious bodily injury and life imprisonment if the offense caused the death of a victim.
The indictment of El Hawa and Gonzales resulted from an ongoing joint investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigations, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, with the assistance of the Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services.
An indictment is merely an accusation and is not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.