The leaders of Helping Hands Youth and Family Services, a youth mentoring agency that had offices in Conway and Georgetown, were given prison sentences and ordered to pay restitution for their roles in a scheme to steal millions of dollars from the federal Medicaid health care program.
Truman Lewis, the agency’s founder, received a 10-year prison sentence while his brother, Norman Lewis, received a 7 1/2-year sentence. Norman Lewis operated the agency’s Georgetown office. Both men also were ordered to pay $3.3 million in restitution to the Medicaid program and will be on three years of supervised release after their sentences are completed, according to Winston Holliday, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.
In addition to the Grand Strand offices, Helping Hands had locations in Columbia and Rock Hill.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles and Jeannine Hammett of the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigations division praised Wednesday’s sentencings as a victory for taxpayers.
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“Medicaid serves those in our community most in need,” Nettles said in a statement. “When individuals like the Lewis brothers rob this program of millions of dollars, they deprive our most vulnerable citizens of resources that can help them.”
Hammett said in a statement that the misuse of federal funds for Medicare and Medicaid “impacts each of us as taxpayers and citizens and these prosecutions are critical to protect these programs.”
The Lewis brothers were found guilty during a jury trial in August. Testimony during that trial showed Helping Hands officials – most of them Lewis family members – falsified records and submitted bills for ineligible or non-existent clients in order to boost Medicaid payments. Lewis family members then transferred that money to personal bank accounts and purchased items such as 10 automobiles, including an $89,000 Bentley and a $55,900 Mercedes.
The Lewis family members had $1 million in certificates of deposit and bank accounts when they were indicted on the criminal charges in June 2012.
Norman Lewis’ wife, Melanie Lewis, is the only other family member to be charged in the case. She pleaded guilty last year to one conspiracy charge in a plea agreement to avoid a trial. That charge carries a maximum five-year prison sentence, although prosecutors will recommend probation based on her cooperation in the investigation and her minor role in the scheme. Melanie Lewis will be sentenced Thursday in Charleston.
“There is no doubt that Truman and Norman where the two main forces behind the conspiracy and, although they coaxed others to participate in the conspiracy, Norman and Truman reaped all the moneys from the scheme,” Christopher Murphy, Melanie Lewis’ lawyer, said in court documents filed Wednesday. Murphy said Melanie Lewis “only got involved in this mess due to fear of her husband.”
Wednesday’s sentencing hearing featured the same type of dramatics Norman Lewis has exhibited in previous court appearances, according to Holliday.
“He was generally belligerent with the judge and he kept interrupting his own attorneys and us,” Holliday said. “He said we were committing perjury and that we were part of a conspiracy. He was in rare form.”
Truman Lewis was more sedate as his sentence was handed down, Holliday said, adding that he has “generally been respectful” throughout the proceedings.
The federal government has seized all of the vehicles, a home and the Lewis brothers’ bank accounts to help pay back $8.9 million in Medicaid payments to Helping Hands, most of them based on fraudulent billing.
Helping Hands – which was supposed to provide mentoring services to low-income children with family or behavioral problems – had hundreds of youth clients in Horry and Georgetown counties. Those clients were referred to the agency by the state’s Department of Social Services and area school officials, even though the agency’s counselors were not licensed
The agency was shut down in 2011 after its offices were raided by federal investigators.
Truman Lewis, 35, had asked the court for leniency, saying in court documents filed last week that he “may have made mistakes along the way” but did not have “malevolent intent.” He said in the court filing that a prison sentence would disrupt his frequent church attendance and hurt his chance to be a positive role model for his children.
Truman Lewis also said he never should have faced criminal charges because Helping Hands had entered into a repayment plan with state officials who oversee the Medicaid program before any charges were filed.
David McCann, a court-appointed lawyer representing Norman Lewis, also had asked for leniency. McCann said in court documents that a lengthy sentence for 32-year-old Norman Lewis “interrupts his young family and presents the unnecessary cost to taxpayers for confinement and treatment, if available.”
However Murphy – Melanie Lewis’ lawyer – said Norman Lewis had little to do with his family and that Melanie Lewis’ marriage “was an abusive one with Norman having a dominating personality.”
Norman Lewis’ previous court appearances have been marred by outbursts and repeated requests to represent himself at trial. He initially told Gergel that he wanted to be represented by God and Jesus rather than a court-appointed defender. He also spoke during an arraignment hearing about more than 100 songs and poems he has written about his work with Helping Hands, “doing so in a manner that left the court concerned with the defendant’s mental capacity,” according to court documents.
Norman Lewis passed a psychiatric exam in December 2012, prompting Gergel to approve his request to represent himself. Gergel rescinded that request in February 2013 after Norman Lewis repeatedly refused to accept boxes of discovery documents needed for trial preparation. Norman Lewis’ refusal to meet with a probation officer led to his incarceration three months later and he was charged with contempt of court in July for speaking to potential jurors.
Helping Hands counselors told The Sun News that agency leaders overloaded them with clients to increase the amount of Medicaid billings. The counselors said agency leaders told them to report hours spent with clients even if they had not been with the children, and told them to falsify reports sent to Medicaid. The U.S. Attorney’s office said Helping Hands also billed Medicaid for children who were no longer in the program or who had no diagnosis to justify billing.
The Helping Hands group run by the Lewises is not affiliated with nonprofits with similar names, including Helping Hand of Myrtle Beach and South Strand Helping Hand.