NY doctor, NJ postal worker among 21 charged in alleged nationwide COVID-19 schemes

NEW YORK (WABC) -- The Justice Department on Wednesday announced nearly two dozen arrests tied to what the agency called largescale, elaborate schemes to exploit the COVID pandemic, including a doctor from Long Island and a postal worker from New Jersey.

Prosecutors say the scams raked in nearly $150 million in illicit funds, and the suspects in the takedown span eight states.

Dr. Perry Frankel, 63, from Long Island, is accused of an alleged scheme to defraud Medicare and Medicaid of over $1.3 million in claims connected to testing.

Dr. Frankel, a cardiologist and the owner and operator of Advanced Cardiovascular Diagnostics PLLC, allegedly submitted claims to Medicare and Medicaid for office visits that were not performed for patients who received COVID-19 tests his mobile testing sites across Long Island -- including on dates when Frankel was not present in the state of New York.

"As alleged, exploiting a public health crisis by using patients who received COVID-19 tests at mobile testing sites to fraudulently bill Medicare and Medicaid for fictitious office visits is reprehensible," United States Attorney Breon Peace said. "This office and our law enforcement partners will vigorously prosecute those who take advantage of the pandemic to steal from taxpayer-funded programs."

Dr. Frankel is charged with three counts of health care fraud. His attorney, Timothy Sini, denied the allegations.

"Dr. Frankel is a respected cardiologist in the Long Island region who has saved lives by providing vital mobile medical screenings to law enforcement, school districts and many communities across Long Island and the five boroughs," he said. "When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Dr. Frankel stepped up and brought much needed COVID-19 testing to the community. He has been recognized for his service by many, including the White House. The government, as part of a larger initiative, is targeting healthcare providers who supposedly took advantage of the pandemic to benefit themselves financially. Nothing could be further from the truth here. Dr. Frankel provided a much needed service during a public health crisis and an extremely challenging time. It is unfortunate that the government's claims seek to undermine the positive nature of Dr. Frankel's work. We look forward to pursuing justice for Dr. Frankel and clearing his name in the medical community.

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In New Jersey, a postal worker is facing charges for her alleged role in creating and distributing fake vaccine cards.

Lisa Hammell, 39, of Turnersville, was charged by indictment with an alleged conspiracy to defraud the United States and fraud.

Beginning in or around March 2021, Hammell allegedly sold fraudulent COVID-19 vaccination record cards she designed and printed while working at a post office.

Hammell allegedly sold at least 400 fraudulent COVID-19 vaccination cards to unvaccinated people.

In total, 21 people have been charged in the past nine days as part of the nationwide enforcement push. The DOJ seized over $8 million in cash and other fraud proceeds.

Some defendants are accused of offering COVID-19 testing to get people to provide their personal identifying information and a saliva or blood sample. That information and the samples were then allegedly used to submit fraudulent claims to Medicare for unnecessary, far more expensive tests or services.

In Colorado, federal agents went through a man's trash to uncover an alleged scheme to produce and sell fake vaccination record cards. In Maryland, an owner of a medical clinic is accused of using information from people who sought COVID testing at drive-thru sites to submit fraudulent claims for lengthy office visits that never occurred.

"Today's enforcement action sends a very clear message that we will stop at nothing to root out COVID-19 related health care fraud, wherever it may be found," Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite said. "The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the American people and the critical health care benefits programs that assist them during this national emergency. And most importantly, we will hold those who exploit those programs accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

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Imran Shams and Lourdes Navarro, both 63, of Glendale, California, were indicted in an alleged scheme to defraud Medicare. They're accused of owning a laboratory that allegedly submitted nearly $144 million in false and fraudulent claims for COVID and respiratory pathogen tests. The tests were ineligible for reimbursement and procured through kickbacks and bribes, and Shams and Navarro concealed their roles in the lab because of prior health care fraud convictions, according to the indictment.

Navarro's attorney, Mark Werksman, said Wednesday his client denies the charges and looks forward to her day in court to show she did nothing illegal in connection with her lab work. Werksman said he may make a special appearance in court for Shams, who doesn't have a lawyer yet.

Other defendants are accused of exploiting telehealth policies put into place during the pandemic, misappropriating money intended for frontline medical providers and manufacturing and distributing fake vaccination record cards.

The DOJ led a similar nationwide enforcement push nearly a year ago that involved 14 defendants and a total of roughly $143 million in false billings. Numerous federal and local law enforcement agencies participated in both enforcement actions.

The Justice Department named a chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud last month, Kevin Chambers, following through on President Joe Biden's State of the Union promise to go after criminals who stole billions in relief money.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported, based on information provided by the Justice Department, that Dr. Perry Frankel was charged with money laundering. Dr. Frankel has been charged with three counts of health care fraud, but not money laundering.

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