Owner of nursing home where 8 died has history of fraud allegations

The man listed in state corporate records as the manager of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills — where eight deaths have been reported after an air-conditioning outage caused by Hurricane Irma – is no stranger to controversy.

Dr. Jack Michel, a physician who serves as the president of Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami, was involved a massive fraud scheme at Larkin more than a decade ago, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Michel and other Larkin owners paid $15.4 million in 2006 to settle health care fraud claims filed against them by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state of Florida.

At the time, Michel was investigated by a plethora of agencies, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Inspector General, the Florida Medicaid Fraud Unit and the FBI. However, Michel was fined and not convicted of any charges

Michel was accused of receiving kickbacks for patient admissions in a Larkin fraud scheme and conspired to admit patients to the hospital for medically unnecessary treatment. The feds alleged those patients came from assisted living facilities owned by Michel and other physicians.

Despite the fraud case, Michel was able to keep his medical license and remain in charge at Larkin, which in recent years has been expanding its reach. The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills was incorporated in June 2015 and the hospital announced last year that it had purchased Palm Springs General Hospital in Hialeah for $40 million.

The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills was incorporated in June 2015 and the hospital announced last year that it had purchased Palm Springs General Hospital in Hialeah for $40 million. 

Attempts to contact Michel for comment have been unsuccessful so far.

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Owner of nursing home where 8 died has history of fraud allegations

The man listed in state corporate records as the manager of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills — where eight deaths have been reported after an air-conditioning outage caused by Hurricane Irma – is no stranger to controversy.

Dr. Jack Michel, a physician who serves as the president of Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami, was involved a massive fraud scheme at Larkin more than a decade ago, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Michel and other Larkin owners paid $15.4 million in 2006 to settle health care fraud claims filed against them by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state of Florida.

At the time, Michel was investigated by a plethora of agencies, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Inspector General, the Florida Medicaid Fraud Unit and the FBI. However, Michel was fined and not convicted of any charges

Michel was accused of receiving kickbacks for patient admissions in a Larkin fraud scheme and conspired to admit patients to the hospital for medically unnecessary treatment. The feds alleged those patients came from assisted living facilities owned by Michel and other physicians.

Despite the fraud case, Michel was able to keep his medical license and remain in charge at Larkin, which in recent years has been expanding its reach. The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills was incorporated in June 2015 and the hospital announced last year that it had purchased Palm Springs General Hospital in Hialeah for $40 million.

The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills was incorporated in June 2015 and the hospital announced last year that it had purchased Palm Springs General Hospital in Hialeah for $40 million. 

Attempts to contact Michel for comment have been unsuccessful so far.

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Animal Care supervisor was resistant to changing animal kill record

With Broward County investigating Local 10 findings that the top official at Broward Animal Control altered pet euthanasia documents, evidence has surfaced that one shelter supervisor resisted orders to change computer records after a public records request was submitted aimed at exposing irregularities in the agency’s books.

Animal Care supervisor Irene Feser wrote in an email to her boss, Director Thomas Adair, that she was “uncomfortable” changing a record – especially regarding information pertaining to a public information request.

“I don’t feel comfortable changing anything such a length after the fact,” Feser wrote in the email. “My experience working for the County has taught me that is not a good idea especially if a records request is involved to change information on a record.”

She goes on to write of Animal Care forms filled out by pet owners that “almost all are never truthful when filled out nor are they reviewed properly when handed back.”

Adair writes her back.

“I think you are reading more into this than you should,” he wrote, adding that he wanted to see her when she arrived at the office.  

It’s the latest bombshell in a Local 10 investigation that began when the station obtained several screen shots from the county computer system showing that Adair had changed the reason for euthanizing a dog or cat from the original reason – often aggressiveness or health concerns – to “owner requested,” meaning the pet owner asked that the animal be killed.

While it’s not known Adair’s motivation for making the changes, owner requested kills are not included in the county’s official euthanasia numbers and would help the county meet its statistical “no kill” goal. When questioned about changes, Adair claimed it was simply “quality control” – though pet owners he claimed had requested euthanasia for the animals they brought in told Local 10 they never made such a request.

It was Hallandale Beach Commissioner Michele Lazarow who, after learning that employees were changing records, made a public records request of all owner request forms for the first three months of the year as well as the corresponding statistics. It was after that request was made in May that computer records show Adiar went back into the system and changed several of the records he’d previously altered back from owner request to the original reason given. Lazarow says she believes those changes are evidence of a cover-up.

“I think the State Attorney’s Office needs to look at this,” she said.

Feser’s email also seems to include a clue as to the type of record manipulation leading to what appear to the false changes. In it she says that she and another supervisor were told in the past to make “owner surrenders” a subtype of “owner request period.”

“Now that we have done that we are being asked why we have done it and being questioned on the decision,” she wrote. “… I did what I was told to do at the time.”

She also indicated that intake forms from owners were in disarray at the shelter.

“There are valid questions on the situation of these forms,” she wrote. “[A]lmost all are never truthful when filled out nor are they reviewed properly when handed back.”

The county investigation, meanwhile, continues and includes the help of the county auditor for good reason – according to the county, the computer database holds information on 14,000 animals. 

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Condo residents worried about financial troubles to possibly result from fire safety bill

When it comes to condo living, Florida ranks as one of the states with the most buildings per capita in the nation.

Much of that growth has come in the past two decades, but there are thousands of buildings that have been in the area dating back 30 years or more.

Residents of some of the buildings are caught in the throes of a legislative battle involving a fire safety bill that may cost them thousands of dollars or even force them out of their homes.

“Our mission is to get residents out of a building if there’s a fire. We also have to protect our firefighters going into these buildings,” said Jon Pasqualone, of the Florida Fire Marshals Inspectors Association.

Pasqualone said data going back 17 years shows fire sprinklers can make a lifesaving difference.

“There was over 1,100 fires documented with 10 fire fatalities in buildings that were not sprinklered,” he said.

During that same time, there were no deaths from another 600 fires in buildings with sprinklers.

“So that tells us sprinklers work,” Pasqualone said.

This past spring, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed condos 75 feet or taller and built before 1994 to opt out of sprinkler systems.

“The veto came as a real surprise,” Florida Rep. George Moraitis, R-Florida, said.

“The reality is all our buildings have the right to self-determination, which is if we wish to do or not wish to do,” said Pio Leraci, president of the Galt Mile Community Association.

The Galt Mile Community Association represents 28 high-rise buildings and more than 15,000 residents.

“So it affects a large amount of people in a very small area. Now extrapolate this to the state of Florida,” Leraci said.

Moraitis, of Fort Lauderdale, was co-sponsor of the bill that would’ve allowed older condos to opt out of retrofitting with sprinklers or other expensive options.

“No one wants to see anyone’s life lost,” he said. “I respect the fire marshal’s office on that, but you have to have a balancing test. You could have 15 airbags in your car, you could over-engineer just about everything, but the question is: is it worth the expense?”
 
“We’ve seen estimates of anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 per owner,” said Fred Nesbitt, president of Playa Del Sol.

Association attorney Donna Berger said the logistics of actually installing a system are problematic.

“We have elderly and frail people in many of these communities, where associations can barely get in to do monthly pest control, let alone get in to do massive retrofits,” she said. 

Nesbitt said his building passes safety inspections every year, but constantly meeting new codes would be a never-ending nightmare.

“We could be re-doing and redoing and redoing the building, and they say, ‘Oh, there’s a new code this year. You have to redo it again,'” he said. 

“We want to be participants in a solution, not contributors to a problem,” Pasqualone said.

Berger said creating a task force to come up with solutions would be a good start.

“If the conclusion is ultimately reached that opting out of sprinklers is not an option, then what we have to focus on is giving these buildings time to comply and resources to comply,” Berger said.

Some of those resources could include tax incentives and low interest loans to help residents pay for the retrofits, but the battle is far from over.

The opt out bill will be back before the governor when the next legislative session gets underway in January. 

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Is Broward County Animal Care hiding true number of pets euthanized?

For five years, Broward County has made it a goal to become a “no-kill” county when it comes to euthanizing unwanted pets, and the numbers of animals put down appear to be dropping fast with the effort.

But now, there are serious questions about whether Broward County Animal Care Director Thomas Adair has been falsifying county records to help bring about that decrease and then changing them back after a public records request was submitted in a bid to discover the extent of the problem.

A well-placed source inside Broward County Animal Care told Local 10 News that Adair routinely alters computer records regarding the number of animals euthanized at the order of the county by changing the real reason for killing the animal, such as health reasons, aggression or “owner requested.”

That’s significant because pets put down at the owner’s request are not included in the county’s official euthanasia numbers, and the number of those owner requests has been skyrocketing.

For instance, in the last six months of 2014, owners requested that a total of 34 dogs and cats be euthanized, according to county statistics.

During that same time period in 2016, that number ballooned to 307 animals killed, an increase of 900 percent.

It appears that at least part of that dramatic increase is due to Adair and his underlings changing the records.

As a sample, Local 10 obtained 13 computer screen shots showing that Adair went into the county computer system days after the fact and changed the reason for euthanizing a pet to owner request, along with two others that were changed by Animal Care employees under Adair’s supervision.

One example involves John Arthur, who looks after stray cats in his Hollywood neighborhood. He brought three kittens to Animal Care on Feb. 4 with the hope of finding them a new home.

Two days later, records show, all three were euthanized by the county for alleged upper respiratory infections, which was entered into the county computer.

County computer records show that three weeks later, on Feb. 27, Adair entered the computer system and changed the reason for all three deaths to “own req,” or owner request.

“There is somebody who is fooling around the truth, which is wrong,” Arthur said.

When questioned by Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman, Adair denied changing the records for nefarious reasons. When Norman showed him an example of an altered record, he said, “I can’t tell you why that on that particular record.”

When Norman told him that it looks like he’s altering public records, Adair replied, “I’m not.”

“The obvious reason for you to change the records … would be to make your animal control look better,” Norman said. 

“OK,” Adair said.

“Can you answer that? Is that why you did it?” Norman asked.

“No, I did not,” Adair said.

“Why did you do it?” Norman asked.

“I was QC’ing the records, and that is not an uncommon practice,” Adair said. 

“QC” apparently stands for quality control, or simply correcting false information, but the records indicate the changes themselves were false.

“He was going in and changing forms,” animal rights activist Michele Lazarow, who is also a Hallandale Beach commissioner, told Local 10.

Lazarow learned of the records changes in May, and on May 25, she had an associate put in a public records request for all forms signed by pet owners asking that their animals be euthanized during the first three months of the year.

“I wanted the numbers for the owner requested euthanasia to match up to what the shelter was claiming that they were actually killing,” she said.

Animal Care produced a total of 90 owner-request forms for January, February and March of this year, yet the county’s own statistics show 125 owner-requested deaths during that same period, indicating that at least 35 forms were missing or didn’t exist.

It gets worse. Computer screen shots obtained by Local 10 showed that Adair went into the county computer system after the public records request was received and changed the records he’d previously altered back from owner-requested to the original reason given.

“The cover-up is worse than the crime is really what happened here,” Lazarow said.

When confronted with that evidence, Adair seemed flustered.

“There’s also records in here that are the opposite,” he said. “So they went from where they were originally classified as owner-request and now they have not been.”

Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said the county has begun an investigation.

“We’ve downloaded the files so we can analyze where the changes were occurring,” she said. “Broward County does not condone falsifying records. We take this very seriously.”

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Homeless registered sex offenders set up camp near Hialeah

There’s a push in Miami-Dade County to shut down a homeless sex offender encampment along a corridor of Northwest 71st street just outside of Hialeah. They are living without access to restrooms, showers or a way to dispose of their garbage. 

Registered sex offenders said government regulations limiting how close they can live to schools and parks have left them with few options. 

A check of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s website lists hundreds of sexual offenders and predators as transient. They use the area as their official address. A man said he was caught during a sting in Broward County and has been living at the camp since February.

“I was on a social networking app,” the man said. “I agreed to meet a 15-year-old boy … A woman across the hallway from my sister’s apartment has two small children and I understand she was scared.”

Steve Grafton, the owner of Grafton Furniture, is among the entrepreneurs in Northwest Miami-Dade who are concerned about the sanitary conditions at the camp and the safety of the area. 

“Miami-Dade County should be embarrassed because of what these people are living like,” Grafton said. “My wife, my daughter work here. I’ve already told all the employees they cannot be here after 6 p.m. because it’s just not safe.”

Surveillance video from Quality Metal Panels captured a man trespassing to throw his tent in their dumpster. Tito Zarza, the owner of Quality Metal Panels, said homeless men also blocked access to the business and scared away other possible tenants. 

“We tried to open the other business right there in this space” said Tito Zarza, the owner of Quality Metal Panels.

Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, said there are “some very serious and significant concerns” about the health conditions. He said social workers and police officers were offering the homeless sex offenders financial assistance and access to housing.

Getting housing is one thing, keeping it is another, according to one sex offender. He said work is scarce once employers learn about his conviction.

“This problem pops up from time to time in our community” Deputy Mayor Russell Benford said. “In the past, just like we’ve had this issue, we’ve always responded.”

Benford said a long-term plan is needed. Both he and Book agreed although housing is limited, there are areas where sex offenders can live in the county.

Book said the county will set a deadline to shut down the encampment. Homeless sex offenders will be responsible for finding their own housing and the Trust will assist temporarily with costs and services to help people get settled and employed.

“People have to work within the confines of the law,” Book said. “And whatever their behavior has been, they have to deal with that.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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