With federal authorities closing in on his multimillion-dollar Medicare fraud ring, pastor Christopher Iruke allegedly hunkered down at his South L.A. storefront church with a congregant and shoved pages upon pages of incriminating evidence into a shredder until the machine overheated.
He then stuffed papers into the toilet and tried flushing his problems away, according to testimony at Iruke's federal fraud trial this month. The documents linked him to bogus prescriptions for power wheelchairs for which he billed the government about $6,000 apiece, prosecutors alleged.
On Tuesday, a jury found Iruke, his wife and an employee who worked for the couple guilty of healthcare fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud in a scheme that involved more than $14 million in illegitimate Medicare claims.
Authorities said Iruke and associates often supplied power wheelchairs to Medicare patients perfectly capable of walking on their own —including one who did jumping jacks to show agents he never needed one. Also among the patients Iruke and his associates filed reimbursement claims for were two people who were deceased, according to court papers.
An attorney for the 60-year-old lay pastor said Wednesday that it was marketers and clinic operators who were responsible for the phony prescriptions, and that his client was fooled into believing he was conducting legitimate business.
"Our position in trial was that he didn't know, that he was a dupe much the same way the Medicare beneficiaries were," attorney Alan Baum said. "All the money he was earning, as far as he knew, was legitimate."
Baum also denied that his client tried to dispose of incriminating evidence.
Prosecutors told jurors in the two-week trial, however, that Iruke's systematic destruction of the documents showed he knew his business was illegal. After purchasing the wheelchairs at about $900 wholesale and paying for the prescriptions, he pocketed the remainder of about $6,000 in taxpayer money he received as Medicare reimbursements, according to court documents. The pastor operated four medical equipment supply companies between May 2002 and September 2009 as part of the scheme, according to authorities.
In all, Iruke's companies filed for $14.2 million in claims and received about $6.6 million in reimbursements.
The money funded a lavish lifestyle, including several luxury cars, international travel, and about half a million dollars of remodeling on his Baldwin Hills home, prosecutors contended in trial.
"He was using Medicare as his personal piggy bank," said Assistant U.S. Atty. David Kirman, who prosecuted the case with Department of Justice trial attorney Jonathan Baum.
Mark Waecker, an attorney for Connie Ikpoh, Iruke's 49-year-old wife, said his client was a full-time nurse and at one point also a student during the time of the alleged scheme, and did not have knowledge of what was going on in her husband's business. An attorney for the employee, Aura Marroquin, 30, who was also convicted Tuesday, could not be reached for comment.
The three defendants are scheduled to be sentenced in November.
A marketer and a clinic employee who each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud in separate cases took the stand and testified against Iruke. Darawn Vasquez, the congregant who worked for Iruke and testified to the frantic weeks that followed after they learned that his medical supply businesses were under investigation, has also pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
The case was brought as part of a federal strike force on Medicare fraud, which has resulted in charges against more than 1,000 people across the country who billed the program $2.3 billion, according to a Department of Justice press release.