Tuesday, July 12, 2011
It's over. It was over five days ago but it's been too uncomfortable to think about, let alone write about.
Also--this is a long post. You can get back to it. I don't mind.
For three weeks we listened to testimony. I know more about Medicare than I ever thought possible. I also learned about Medicare fraud, and about conspiracy to commit fraud. I was reminded that some people will do bad things, even though most people don't start out intending to do bad things but then something changes in their heads and they do bad things. Being bad is a slippery slope. Once you start, it can be hard to stop. And legally, conspiracy is an incurable disease. You can be rolling along, la-de-da, not conspiring for a long time. And then you do something to aid and abet a conspirator. Goodnight, Irene. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Now that the trial is over I can say what happened. First--yes, jury duty is hard. You must listen to everybody and his uncle for days and days but not discuss the case nor look anything up nor form any opinions. And then you and eleven other reasonable (you hope) citizens get a book of instructions, fifteen bankers boxes of files and exhibits, a white board and markers, a steno pad filled with (inadequate) notes and are locked in a room until you figure out if three physicians are guilty or not.
Second--jury duty is sad. More about that later.
Here's the situation: A handful of sneaky Armenians (nothing against Armenians, but that's what they were) had fake medical clinics in the LA area and decided to open up in Sacramento where nobody suspected them yet. So they set up the first one, and it looked enough like a clinic to fool people, and started rounding up elderly Hmong and Laotian immigrants to be "patients". Each one got a nice crisp Benjamin, charts were made, and test were done. Expensive tests. Medicare was billed. Money -lots of money- poured in.
Of course, to make the whole machine hum, doctors or physicians' assistants were needed to "examine" the patients and order the tests. And key to it all, doctors were needed to open bank accounts, sign off on the charts and provide their Medicare billing numbers. Enter, one at a time, the three defendants.
First was Dr Popov (yes, like the vodka) who was a Russian expatriate in serious financial trouble due, apparently, to unfortunate circumstances and weak planning. It seemed like becoming the medical director of a new clinic would be a good way to get back on his pegs financially. All he had to do was review and sign the charts. Indeed it would have a been good way except of course, everything was fake, and if he didn't know that right away he surely realized very soon that he was dancing with the devil.
Next came Dr Prakash. I can't help it if he looked like the worst stereotype of an elderly Indian neurologist, but he did. We didn't get much information about his past except that he'd never been in trouble, and he didn't testify or have anyone testify in his defense, but there was irrefutable evidence that he, too, went along with the scheme. He conspired to commit fraud, sealing his fate. He lay down with dogs and got up with fleas.
The third defendant, Dr LeChabrier, had impressive European credentials but we never heard a single word from her so I'm still not sure if she was American or not. All the charts from the clinic she was involved in went missing and she never testified nor had anyone testify for her. We spent 75% of our time trying to determine at what point she understood that she was committing fraud, although we knew she was guilty of conspiracy (that even-one-day rule.) It was almost impossible to agree which of three counts were fraudulent, but we needed at least one to make the conspiracy charge stick, so we ultimately elected to let the remaining two pass due to reasonable doubt. I truly appreciate my wonderful, mindful fellow jurors who felt certain she was guilty but conceded to the convictions of those who were uncertain. Like me.
We filed into the courtroom. There were probably thirty people in the gallery, including some of the family members we had seen during the trial, there to hear the verdict. It was tense and solemn. One by one, the verdicts were read, and then we were polled individually, twelve counts in all.
We had been warned that the attorneys might be waiting outside the courtroom to question us. The judge kindly invited us to tour his chambers so we could ask questions, and by the time we emerged, everyone had gone. Everyone except Dr Popov's attorney. And Mrs Popov. She hurried over to four of us women--I was closest to her. She was as small as a ten year old girl with sad eyes and brows like little black thumbprints. In a mournful voice with a Russian accent that gave away her Soviet childhood, she said, "Please, could I just ask you why you thought he was guilty? I was there for the closing arguments and I thought it explained why he was innocent. Didn't you think so too?"
How could I tell her that it took us five minutes to agree that Dr Popov was unequivocally guilty? (To be thoroughly fair, we looked up the evidence for each of the four counts against him. The other defendants were much more difficult.) I could not say, your husband betrayed you. He rolled you over, and your family, and old immigrants, and the government. So I just said, "I'm so very sorry. There was just so much evidence against him." Our eyes filled with tears as we looked at each other; perhaps she was seeing her whole life. Two other jurors took my hands and hustled me towards the elevators. I cried down fourteen floors. And then we walked out into the hot, bright afternoon, and my jury duty service was finished.