Grandma rips off Medicare and skips town — likely to Cuba

The Miami Herald

Dora Robaina’s résumé boasted plenty of experience working in Miami’s lucrative Medicare rackets.

She’d served two years in prison a decade ago for fraud and was facing new charges for her suspected role as a patient recruiter in another ring prosecutors say bilked millions from the government program. And before that case could even begin, she was set to spend three years behind bars for tipping off the scam’s ringleader so he could evade FBI agents who had come to arrest him at a Hialeah dental office where she worked.

But Robaina, 49, was also about to become a grandmother. So last spring, a federal judge granted her request to delay surrender so she could attend her grandson’s expected birth. She was supposed to turn herself in last June.

Instead, grandma fled — probably to Cuba. It’s long been a popular escape route for Medicare fraud fugitives. Over the past decade, dozens of defendants have sought haven on the communist island when confronted with criminal charges in Miami.

“She had an appointment with me but she never showed up,” said her defense attorney, David T. Alvarez, who obtained her bail and surrender delay with the support of the U.S. attorney’s office. “But it’s not my belief that she fled. It doesn’t make any sense because she was a minor player in the main case.”

However, FBI agents who track such fugitives suspect that Robaina absconded to Cuba in the footsteps of the leader of a Miami-Dade pharmacy network, Pedro Torres, and three of his partners. Those four defendants are suspected of fleeing to Cuba before facing a nearly $17 million Medicare fraud indictment last April.

The FBI’s field office in Miami estimates there are about 160 defendants on the lam from active Medicare fraud cases in South Florida. Together, the fugitives are accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the taxpayer-funded Medicare program for seniors and disabled by submitting false claims for a variety of bogus services, including medical supplies, physical therapy and prescription drugs.

Almost all of the fugitives are Cuban-born immigrants who fled to Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking countries to evade federal trials. With the exception of Cuba, several foreign countries with U.S. extradition treaties have assisted federal authorities in capturing and returning the Medicare fraud fugitives. But most of the time, the FBI simply catches a break when the fugitives try to come back to the United States.

Over the past decade, the FBI has captured more than 60 Medicare fraud fugitives, with the majority stopped at Miami International Airport when they tried to re-enter the country. Since late 2013, the number of fugitive arrests has risen sharply by about 25, according to the bureau’s records.

“They either come in voluntarily knowing they’re going to be arrested or they come in not knowing they’re wanted because they’ve been charged under a sealed indictment,” said FBI Special Agent Bryan Piper, a veteran member of the bureau’s healthcare fraud team in South Florida.

Indeed, a key strategy in preventing Medicare offenders from becoming fugitives is to file indictments under wraps so that targets of investigations don’t discover they’re wanted before fleeing South Florida.

But when they do escape, fugitives can get detained as they travel by boat from Cuba to the Florida Keys — as was the case with Jorge L. Portillo, who was stopped last March after being on the lam since 2009. Or as they try to cross from Mexico into Texas at the Southwest border — as happened with Joel Fuentes, who was arrested in September after fleeing in 2008.

Portillo, 40, was sentenced in August to two years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to defraud Medicare as the “nominee owner” of a Miami durable medical equipment company that submitted $2 million in false claims and received $927,000 in payments a decade ago.

Fuentes, 51, pleaded guilty in December to the same Medicare offense as the operator of a Miami therapy clinic that filed $3.5 million in fraudulent claims for infusion drugs through a managed care company and was paid $2.3 million a decade ago. Fuentes’ one-time business partner, Julio C. Martin, 42, is a fugitive believed to be in Cuba.

Robaina, the grandmother, and four other defendants in their Miami-Dade ring of pharmacy fraud are the latest fugitives believed to have escaped to Cuba.

Robaina, who had already served two years in a previous 2005 Medicare fraud case, rejoined Miami’s healthcare rackets as a patient recruiter. In 2011, she was among a squad of recruiters who supplied Medicare beneficiaries to a chain of 10 Miami-Dade pharmacies controlled by Pedro Torres, who paid kickbacks from $16.7 million in Medicare proceeds for prescription drugs that were not provided to patients, according to an indictment.

In September of 2015, a trio of FBI agents, including Piper, received a tip that Torres was at a Hialeah dental office and went there to arrrest him. But Torres sneaked away when an office employee, Robaina, created a distraction. She shouted in Spanish that the suspect had run down the hallway and into the street.

The agents would never catch up with the 44-year-old Torres, nor three of his partners in the pharmacy ring: Mario Saul Lay and Ariel Nunez Finalet, both 51, along with Antonio Hevia, 53, who had a Medicare fraud conviction from 2005. Those four suspects slipped away before the indictment — charging a total of 18 defendants including Robaina — was filed in April of last year.

Robaina, who shared a North Bay Village residence with Torres, would disappear sometime last spring — after her lawyer obtained a delay from a federal judge to surrender to prison on her accessory conviction stemming from the dental office incident. Robaina, who had been ordered to surrender on May 10, 2016, asked for an extension because her grandson’s birth was due 10 days later. U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks allowed her to surrender on June 10.

Middlebrooks’ extension — along with a low bond Robaina had received from a different judge for her role as a patient recruiter in the main pharmacy case — was rare in light of the historic crackdown by South Florida’s federal bench and prosecutors on Medicare offenders, especially those with ties to Cuba that could easily flee.

And, as has happened before in some cases, Robaina vanished.

Her lawyer, Alvarez, said he contacted Robaina’s son, who told him that she was not at home. “He told me that her pit bull was placed in a kennel,” Alvarez said. “That’s the last I heard of [her].”

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