In a case the Los Angeles district attorney’s office is calling one of the largest insurance scams in the state, an orthopedic surgeon is accused of deceiving patients into having surgery at the hands of an unqualified assistant and undergoing procedures they didn’t need.
The alleged $150 million fraud affected nearly two dozen injured workers in Southern California and set off a five-year investigation that culminated Tuesday. Prosecutors unsealed grand jury indictments charging 15 people with crimes ranging from insurance fraud to conspiracy and aggravated mayhem, or recklessly harming another.
The case marks the third time in as many years that Southern California prosecutors have accused people of making millions by exploiting injured workers.
In Orange County, businessman Kareem Ahmed is facing manslaughter charges over a $100 million insurance fraud case that resulted in the death of an infant. Former Long Beach hospital executive Michael Drobot pleaded guilty in 2014 to paying kickbacks to doctors who performed risky spine surgeries covered by workers’ compensation insurance.
In the case unsealed Tuesday, prosecutors say 21 injured workers required additional surgeries and suffered physical or psychological trauma from their experience at Dr. Munir Uwaydah’s clinics, called Frontline Medical Associates and Firstline Health.
Uwaydah and his top colleagues were so corrupt, prosecutors allege, that they paid one lawyer who represented injured workers a cash bonus when clients he referred to the clinics received surgery. Prosecutors say bonuses also were paid to an office staff member who altered doctors’ notes to get insurance companies to approve surgeries.
Defendants include two people who have spent a considerable amount of time in the public eye in recent years: Uwaydah and Kelly Soo Park.
Park, 49, was tried and acquitted in 2013 for the murder of the 21-year-old model Juliana Redding. Prosecutors say Park’s only link to Redding was her employer, Uwaydah, who fled to Lebanon after Park’s 2010 arrest in that case.
Court records say Uwaydah, who was not charged in the case, described Park as his “James Bond Girl” and relied on her to intimidate business contacts. Uwaydah was detained in Germany last week in the insurance fraud case, the district attorney’s office said, and is being extradited to the U.S.
But Benjamin Gluck, an attorney who has represented Uwaydah, said Uwaydah has not been arrested and is not in custody.
“I’d love to see a mug shot, because it’s not my guy,” Gluck said.
A district attorney’s spokeswoman did not comment by publication time on Gluck’s claim. The office declined to comment on whether Uwaydah now would be questioned about Redding’s killing.
Prosecutors alleged that Uwaydah dated Redding and afterward continued talks with her father, pharmacist Greg Redding, about a business deal that involved dispensing medicated creams to injured workers.
Greg Redding ultimately backed out of the deal. Within a week, his daughter was found strangled in her Santa Monica apartment, in March 2008. Investigators found Park’s bloody fingerprint and DNA in Redding’s apartment.
Prosecutors ultimately presented exhibits showing a $1 million transfer between Uwaydah and Park, alleging that he tapped her to intimidate Juliana Redding. Uwaydah has denied involvement in the killing.
In his appeal to jurors, Park’s attorney argued that her DNA could have been transferred to the scene on a towel. The jurors acquitted and deadlocked on all charges.
Mark Kassabian, an attorney for Park, said the new insurance fraud charges against her “don’t hold water.”
“We’re confident that when the actual evidence is examined in this case that Kelly’s going to be found not guilty,” he said.
Court records show that suspicions about Uwaydah’s clinic emerged nearly a decade ago.
In 2007, a State Compensation Insurance Fund attorney began an investigation of Uwaydah’s pharmacy and clinic, Frontline Medical Associates in San Fernando. Attorney Bruce Roth was looking into whether Uwaydah’s firms billed for prescriptions that injured workers didn’t need or that doctors didn’t order, court records show. He also was probing whether physician assistants were doing doctors’ work and making it appear as though the doctor performed the service.
Roth launched the investigation in the interest of fighting liens, or demands for payment, that Frontline filed against the insurance provider, SCIF.
In 2009, Uwaydah cited questions investigators were asking and sued Roth for libel, slander and interfering with economic advantages. Roth ultimately won the case on the grounds that he was doing his job as a public employee and was awarded attorney’s fees.
The indictments unsealed Tuesday detail a complex and widespread network of professionals accused of using injured workers for profit.
Two grand juries were presented with testimony from 102 witnesses. Those indicted include Dr. David R. Johnson, an 80-year-old physician from Corona who is accused of billing for office visits that didn’t take place. Grand jurors also indicted Peter Nelson, 44, of Redondo Beach, a physician assistant accused of performing surgeries that purportedly were under Uwaydah’s supervision – even when he was not there. Nelson did not attend medical school, authorities said.
Nelson and Uwaydah also are accused of performing unnecessary surgery on four injured workers in 2006 and 2007. The indictment says the patients’ MRIs showed no sign of the injuries cited to justify the procedures.
Bail for five of the defendants, including Uwaydah, has been set at $21.5 million each.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.