Updated at: 02/01/2013 4:07 PM
By ED WHITE
(AP) DETROIT - A judge sentenced a Detroit-area man to 17 years in prison Friday for drug fraud worth millions, a sweeping scheme that was hatched in Indian languages and involved more than 20 pharmacies as well as pharmacists who emigrated from other countries.
Babubhai "Bob" Patel was accused of billing insurers for expensive prescriptions that he never intended to give to customers. The government said he paid doctors to write the orders and had recruiters offer cash to poor people in exchange for their Medicare or Medicaid number.
"What you have done is reprehensible," U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow said.
Patel, 50, who controlled the pharmacies, asked the judge for mercy. He apologized to his family but was not contrite about his convictions and said he would appeal.
The Canton Township man was also ordered to pay nearly $20 million in restitution to the government and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
The judge said Patel helped ruin the careers of pharmacists of Indian descent who were allowed to work in the U.S. with his sponsorship. At least 10 have been convicted in the case and eventually will be deported to Canada or India.
"He had the visa issue to hold over their heads. He lured them into the scheme and kept them there," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Neal told the judge.
Secretly recorded phone conversations were a crucial part of the government’s evidence at trial last summer. Most were in the Gujarati or Hindu languages. Patel, a pharmacist, has deep ties to the local Indian community and was vice chairman of the Canton Hindu temple.
The government said Patel made money by billing for expensive drugs for mental illness, such as Abilify and Seroquel. Drugs were stored in basements and apartments and eventually returned to wholesalers.
Doctors were paid $500 to sign stacks of blank prescriptions. When they wanted more money they would tell Patel, "Ah, my hand is getting tired," Neal told jurors at trial.
Separately, recruiters driving 15-seat vans offered $100 to people in Detroit homeless shelters and soup kitchens. They were shuttled for a phony checkup by a doctor who would use their Medicare or Medicaid number to write prescriptions for drugs that were sold or distributed illegally.
"Everything about this scheme was extreme. ... He absolutely never imagined he would get caught," Neal said in court Friday.
Defense attorney Robert Sirianni Jr. asked for a 10-year sentence, well below the guidelines in the case. He said Patel was a "kind, warm individual" who was generous to his community and loved by his family.
The judge wasn’t swayed by the portrayal, especially when put up next to Patel’s crimes.
"Doesn’t it make it worse?" Tarnow asked.
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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)