Miami Herald: Coral Gables couple again accused of stealing, selling patient records
Mar 8, 2010
The Miami Herald published this article on March 8, 2010.
A Coral Gables couple are indicted a second time on charges of stealing the private records of patients to sell to lawyers for personal-injury claims.
BY JAY WEAVER
Last year, they were charged with running a racket to pilfer patient records from Jackson Memorial Hospital to sell to lawyers for personal-injury claims.
Now Ruben E. Rodriguez and wife Maria Victoria Suarez have been indicted again for paying an ambulance-company employee to steal information on patients transported to Miami-Dade hospitals and healthcare clinics. That theft scheme dates all the way back to 1995, according to an indictment filed last week.
In both federal cases, the Coral Gables couple are accused of brokering the stolen computer records of patients’ names, addresses, telephone numbers and medical diagnoses to several attorneys in exchange for kickback payments. The lawyers paid them hundreds of thousands of dollars for the referrals after settling injury claims, authorities say.
Among the suspected personal-injury lawyers: G. Walter Araujo. The Hialeah lawyer has not been charged in the federal prosecution but this past week, the Florida Bar confirmed it was investigating him for potential ethics violations in connection with the first federal case involving the theft of JMH patient records.
Araujo, who was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1997, did not return calls for comment.
Under Bar rules, lawyers are allowed to advertise on TV and billboards and in the Yellow Pages but are prohibited from soliciting clients by phone or at their home or in the hospital. They’re also prohibited from sharing their legal fees with nonlawyers.
According to court records in the JMH case, one unidentified personal-injury attorney wrote 27 checks totaling $85,250 to a shell company incorporated by Rodriguez as kickback payments for the patient referrals between 2006 and 2009.
It was not clear if that lawyer was Araujo, a graduate of the University of Miami School of Law.
Rodriguez, 61, whose bond was revoked last year after he allegedly tampered with grand jury witnesses, will be back in federal court Tuesday on the new charges of conspiracy, computer fraud and identity theft. His attorney, Philip Horowitz, declined to comment about the case.
His wife, Suarez, 52, who is free on bail, will also be back in court that day. Her lawyer, Joaquin Mendez, could not be reached for comment.
The couple’s criminal prosecution, headed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Curtis, has taken some unusual turns.
SET TO PLEAD GUILTY
In January, Rodriguez was set to plead guilty to the first conspiracy indictment, which said he stole JMH patient records by paying a hospital employee for the private information. But Rodriguez backed out of the plea agreement on the day of his court hearing.
Although he signed the agreement, it is no longer valid because he never pleaded guilty to it in court.
In a companion statement to the plea, Rodriguez admitted that he paid JMH ultrasound technician Rebecca Garcia $1,000 a month for the records of hundreds of patients treated for slip-and-fall accidents, car-crash injuries, gunshot wounds and stabbings. The payments were made between December 2006 and February 2009.
Rodriguez came to know Garcia through his wife, Suarez, a cosmetologist. Garcia, fired from her long-term job at JMH, is serving a 10-month prison sentence.
Rodriguez referred the injured patients to one unidentified personal-injury lawyer, who paid him referral fees of 35 percent on each successful claim for damages, according to court records.
The latest indictment accuses Rodriguez of engineering a similar scam with a Miami-Dade employee of the national ambulance company American Medical Response. He first approached the employee, identified as “co-conspirator A” in the indictment, in 1995 to discuss the “business proposition” of stealing patient records.
The employee “first accessed and obtained personal identification information” of injured patients transported by AMR in August of that year, the indictment says.
Both Rodriguez and his wife made at least four payments of $1,000 to $2,000 to the AMR employee from December 2006 to April 2009, according to the indictment. The couple, in turn, supplied the patient records to personal-injury lawyers and healthcare clinics seeking business.
The unidentified AMR employee was fired by the Colorado-based company in February. The company issued a statement saying it was recently notified of the FBI investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami.
“The alleged behavior is in violation of specific company policies and the employee was terminated,” AMR said in the statement, adding that it “cooperated fully with federal authorities.”