Former O.C. chiropractor convicted in first federal criminal trial in 15 months
In the first federal criminal trial in Orange County in 15 months, a jury on Tuesday convicted a Dana Point resident and ex-chiropractor of healthcare fraud, part of a broad investigation that ensnared medical providers throughout Southern California.
Susan H. Poon, 56, was among 34 people charged in 2019 in what authorities described as a multistate investigation into $257 million in fraudulent Medicare and Medicaid billing. Prosecutors pinned $2.2 million of that on Poon by identifying dozens of patients with hundreds of procedures that were simply made up. Not only were the procedures never performed, in many instances, the patients had never seen Poon and didn’t know she was using their identities to get money from insurance companies.
Many of the falsified patient documents contained the phrase “grin and bear it,” which prosecutors told jurors was clear evidence of an organized scheme by Poon.
“There’s a common denominator, and that’s the defendant is just making it up. She’s writing it on all these forms,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Ahn, who prosecuted the case with Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Lim.
Poon’s chiropractic license was revoked in July 2019. At the time of her arrest, she operated Head 2 Toe Wellness in Rancho Santa Margarita, where prosecutors said she defrauded Anthem and Etna insurance companies hundreds of times between January 2015 and April 2018. Many of the “ghost patients” prosecutors described were family members of Costco Wholesale Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. employees who met Poon at health fairs. Poon obtained information about children and spouses, then submitted fraudulent billings for procedures that never took place. Jurors heard from several people whom Poon claimed to have served, but they testified they’d never been to her office.
Marcus Anthony Eriz, 24, and Wynne Lee, 23, were taken into custody Sunday at home in Costa Mesa, over two weeks after the 6-year-old’s shooting.
Poon’s lawyer, H. Dean Steward, defended her as a caring professional with a fast-paced practice. She made billing errors, Steward said, but errors are not crimes. Steward also said her lifestyle doesn’t reflect the extravagance often seen with financial crimes. Prosecutors like to show photos of a “Newport Beach penthouse and Ferrari and all those things,” Steward said, but “what we have here is Dr. Poon driving a Mini Cooper. The car before that that she drove was a Prius.”
“We didn’t hear about Gucci purses. We didn’t hear about Rolex watches,” Steward said.
Jurors deliberated about eight hours over two days before convicting Poon of all nine felony healthcare fraud charges. She’s currently not in jail but faces a statutory maximum of 67 years in prison when she’s sentenced Aug. 30, though she likely will receive much less time under federal sentencing laws. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, for the 81 percent of healthcare fraud convicts who were sentenced to prison in 2019, the average sentence was 34 months.
After he read the verdict on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge David Carter asked jurors to inform his courtroom on Monday about their health status, in an apparent nod to a months-long dispute among his colleagues about the safety of pandemic-era jury trials. The judge is close with U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney, who dismissed five criminal cases because of the trial ban, and shares Carney’s concern about the constitutionality of indefinitely disallowing trials.
Carney has been at odds with U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton, who questioned the safety of Orange County Superior Court jury trials during the pandemic because she said court officials weren’t contacting jurors post-trial to see if they’d been infected with the coronavirus. Carney repeatedly pointed to the superior court trials when arguing against the Central District’s trial ban and said in February that Staton “misunderstands the purpose and practicability of contact tracing.”
Like Staton and Carney, Carter appeared to misuse the phrase “contact tracing” when he spoke with jurors last week because he wasn’t referring to tracing the contacts of the jurors but simply requesting they contact the court on Monday to report their health status.
Regardless, Carter clearly was trying to acknowledge Staton’s safety concerns while adhering to his and Carney’s steadfast support for in-person jury trials.
“There’s lot of cases coming up in the future, and if something happens we want to get it right health wise,” Carter said.
Meghann M. Cuniff is a contributor to Times OC. She’s on Twitter @meghanncuniff.
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