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Published: Sunday, 2/9/2003

Peaks-to-pits lifestyle of Medicare fraudster

BY MICHAEL D. SALLAH
AND JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

William Harris drives his compact car every workday to a West Toledo office park where he once owned a $2 million high-rise apartment complex.

He now parks next door and walks to a tiny office where he works as a $209-a-week computer programmer.

Pecking away on a keyboard, the once wealthy entrepreneur who founded a medical supply empire can now only glance out his office window at the five-story building he used to own.

"I live from day to day," he says.

His sleek black Jaguar has been replaced by a Kia; his $1 million home in Sylvania Township by an apartment he shares with his elderly mother.

Placed on supervised release from criminal custody last month, this is how life has evolved for the man who once owned more than $40 million in real estate in Ohio and the Cayman Islands.

A noted Toledo business figure in the 1990s with a passion for sail boats and sports cars, Harris conducted business coast to coast through his Toledo company before his arrest in 1998 in one of the country's largest Medicare frauds.

But prosecutors suspect Harris' impoverished veneer masks an access to cash carefully hidden during his days of looting the funds that pay the medical costs of seniors.

By the time his operation was padlocked, he had falsely billed Medicare for $41 million, and received $15 million.

Federal agents claim Harris may have stashed a considerable fortune - possibly millions - overseas. His former wife is making the same allegations in a divorce battle that has reached a state appeals court.

“We have always had concerns that we never recovered all of his assets," says Seth Uram, an assistant U.S. attorney in Toledo.

In the last decade, Harris Medical Supply and his other ventures sold thousands of adult diapers to nursing home patients as far away as Puerto Rico.

Though Medicare didn't cover such items, Harris falsely billed the federal program for the diapers by saying they were covered devices like catheters.

He feverishly plowed the proceeds into real estate, buying 11 apartment complexes, a warehouse, and 22 residential properties scattered across northwest Ohio between 1993 and 1996.

Prosecutors say he lived lavishly off the proceeds of his enterprise, buying expensive items like a $47,000 diamond ring, a $24,000 diamond-studded Rolex, a $23,000 vintage Corvette, and a leased Jaguar.

“One hundred percent of his income - his wealth- was from cheating,” Mr. Uram says.

Prosecutors say he took his scheme further by sinking millions into property in the Cayman Islands - including a $1 million beachfront villa - setting the stage for his next financial rise.

But before his dreams could be realized, Harris was arrested by the FBI in September, 1998. He pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy the following year in federal court in Toledo.

More than four years later, he's now out of prison. His wife has divorced him, and he now lives on $11,000 a year.

“I had to give up everything I had,” says the former entrepreneur, who was placed on federal supervised release Jan. 10.

Just last month, the U.S. government finished sorting out his tangled business empire, settling the final claims of his multimillion dollar estate - with 25 percent going to reimburse taxpayers.

But the Harris case is not just about fleecing taxpayers.

It is also about government regulators, who learned of the scheme within two years but took four years to shut it down and six years to arrest him, court records show.

The government's enforcement system lacked the manpower and resources in the 1990s to respond to complaints of false Medicare billings - costing taxpayers billions, say experts who track such fraud.

“At the time, there was only a certain amount of resources set aside to detect and enforce against fraud,” says Mr. Uram. “It's unfortunate that it can take a couple of years to catch up.”

The details of his case are still being argued in federal court by lawyers for Harris' bookkeeper, Josephine Browning, 54, who's asking to be released from prison.

She is serving 10 years - twice as long as her former boss' sentence - after being convicted in a 1999 federal trial in Toledo.

Her family and her lawyers say she was only following Harris' orders.

“There's no way she should be in jail,” says her brother, Tom Brady, who has fought for years for her freedom.

Harris agrees that his former employee shouldn't be in prison, but he also claims he never broke the law.

Though he pleaded guilty to defrauding Medicare from 1993 to 1996, he claims the agency's regulations were too confusing to bring charges against him.

An all-but-forgotten figure on Toledo's power scene, Harris now spends his days in a starkly decorated office near I-475 and Secor Road as a programmer for a religious publication company.

Slumped on a swivel chair during his first-ever interview two weeks ago with The Blade, Harris appears noticeably older and grayer than he was when he hobnobbed with Toledo's business and social elite, hosting gatherings at his 23-room home in Sylvania Township.

Twiddling a rubber band in his hand, the soon-to-be 61-year-old recalls his topsy turvy life: “I had it all.”

William Harris: Works for $209 a week at a Christian publishing house. William Harris: Works for $209 a week at a Christian publishing house.
POLICE BOOKING PHOTO Enlarge

With his bags packed and $200,000 in cash and cashier's checks tucked away, Harris was about to run in 1998.

FBI agents, however, were on his trail. Harris was ready to flee to the Caribbean to a place where he sailed and would now seek refuge: the Cayman Islands.

The banks there kept secrets. The island government balked at extraditing fugitives. And he had just furnished a $1 million beachfront home.

But Harris never reached paradise.

Before he could leave, FBI agents raided his home in September, 1998, ending what was one of the most remarkable Medicaid fraud cases in Ohio - one that began in a garage on a $1,700 investment and evolved into a national corporation.

For someone who grew up in a middle-class home in Warren, Ohio, it was quite an achievement.

William Harris was 6 when his father died of a heart attack, leaving his mother and his grandmother to raise him in the tough, blue-collar town.

Harris dropped out of the University of Michigan's Flint campus his freshman year. He eventually obtained an embalming license in Cincinnati in 1966, but he says he never used it because he couldn't raise the cash to start his own mortuary.

He dabbled in everything from installing irrigation systems to managing a Radio Shack in Indiana.

By the late 1980s, Harris discovered a new way to make a living that eventually would shake the Medicare system across the country.

After slogging out a living peddling everything from Valium to janitorial supplies across the Midwest, Harris met a man who changed his career - Charles Quisenberry.

The successful Monroe, Mich., pharmacy owner was selling “incontinence kits” to nursing home patients with urinary problems, and getting Medicare to reimburse him.

Harris joined the sales team, but he didn't last long. Quisenberry claims he fired him in a few months for falsifying documents; Harris says he left on his own because he wasn't getting paid his fair share.

In the end, Harris found his path to big money: Medicare.

The federal health program for the elderly was then the Wild West of the medical industry. Lax enforcement and confusing regulations led many suppliers to bend the rules to squeeze more cash from the mammoth health-care program.

Setting up an operation in a Toledo garage in 1992, Harris began buying adult diapers for about 25 to 45 cents each, records show. He then packaged the diapers in “incontinence kits” and convinced nursing homes that Medicare covered the goods.

Then he charged Medicare as much as $22 a diaper, claiming the adult diapers were “urinary collection devices,” just like catheters.

By the end of his first year, Harris raked in $2.4 million and plowed it into down payments for five apartment buildings and four rental homes in Lucas County.

They would become the nucleus for a real-estate empire that, within two years, would include nearly 1,000 rental units across northwest Ohio.

By 1995 Harris employed more than 200.

Then the rumors began.

Established apartment-complex owners began to wonder just how this new guy was able to acquire so much money so fast. So did other businessmen, like Bill Metzger, whose company cleaned the carpets in Harris' buildings.

“This guy just bought every property for sale, and he upset a lot of [investors] because he was buying them over the market price,” Mr. Metzger recalled. “So, obviously, he had money to get rid of.”

Harris was plowing his money into more than real estate, however.

His toys included sports cars, furs, diamonds, guns, and yachting around the Caribbean. He opened a wine shop at Westgate - an extension of his and his wife, Kay's, emerging social standing.

“We had a lot of fun, and the money bought that fun,” he recalls.

The enormously successful businessman could even afford to buy one of the most exclusive homes in the region, an 8,000-square-foot house complete with a his-and-her gym. The cost: $1.1 million.

His money for the down payment came from $500,000 in Medicare money.

The red flags were everywhere.

Savvy nursing home patients who studied their Medicare bills knew they weren't getting any sophisticated urinary collection devices from Harris Medical Supply - just diapers.

In late 1993 they began to complain.

That same year, Medicare fraud agents began investigating the new supplier from Toledo and even issued two nationwide alerts in 1994 to companies doing business with Medicare: We don't reimburse for diapers.

But Harris convinced nursing homes that Medicare was confused. At the same time, Medicare kept sending him checks.

Experts who have studied the case say Harris somehow “slipped through the cracks,” says Charles Inlander, president of People's Medical Supply, a well-known consumer group.

“Medicare at that time was not equipped to deal with these kinds of cases,” he says. “They didn't have the manpower.”

Harris later told federal prosecutors that he convinced himself the scheme was legal too.

“He was familiar with the government paying $75 for a toilet seat and $700 for an ashtray, so he felt this fell into the same category,” according to an internal Medicare report.

Medicare, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Postal Service began a formal investigation of Harris. But it wasn't until September, 1995 - two years and millions of dollars in billing payments later - that agents raided his Angola Road office.

But that didn't stop the determined Harris, say prosecutors. He simply changed the names of his companies, listing post-office boxes as new addresses.

Leery of more investigations, he began to take a different course in his business affairs, federal documents show.

In 1996 he hired a San Diego attorney to move assets to the Cayman Islands - a group of isles in the Caribbean about 180 miles northwest of Jamaica. He refinanced his rental empire in Toledo, convincing banks to give him nearly $3 million in cash, court records show.

All of it was sent to the Caymans, prosecutors say.

Harris sold his 23-room mansion to buy a more modest, $250,000 home in Sylvania Township. He continued, however, to build two homes on Grand Cayman Island and bought five more properties.

On Sept. 1, 1998, agents stormed his home, finding $75,000 in cash and checks in bank envelopes. Inside his Jaguar they found a cashier's check for $177,000.

They also discovered that Harris and his wife, Kay, had packed 20 boxes of belongings and had directed their housekeeper to pack more. Kay Harris had applied for a teaching job in the Caymans, and they both had applied for citizenship, court records show.

Harris was arrested.

As part of a plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to charge his wife, labeling her as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” Two lower-level administrators working for Harris also cooperated and received probation.

Browning, the bookkeeper who insists she was innocent because she was only following orders, took her criminal case to trial in federal court in Toledo.

“She was not going to admit to something she didn't do,” says her brother, Tom Brady.

Browning was found guilty and sentenced in 1999 to 10 years in prison. As part of his plea, Harris received a six-year sentence but was released early to supervised control two weeks ago.

“I went from [wealth] and having a lot to having nothing,” he now says. “They took away my money and they took away my friends.”

Harris insists his days in a Morgantown, W.Va., prison have changed him. He spent hours devouring adventure novels, making friends with an ex-judge who fixed tickets, and a former Pennsylvania lawmaker who took bribes.

But five years after he pleaded guilty, he still insists he did nothing wrong.

His case became one of many from the last decade that led to a massive overhaul of the Medicare program under President Clinton.

Legislation in the mid-1990s led to dramatic tightening of the rules on how Medicare businesses could be structured and what contractors could charge, enlarged the pool of investigators, and exponentially boosted the penalties for wrongdoers. The result, the government claims, is that Medicare fraud has been cut in half to about $12 billion in 2000.

“The new regulatory scheme was so incredible it put a massive chilling effect on the industry,” says G. Opie Rollison, Jr., a Toledo health-care attorney.

One target of the federal government turned out to be Harris' former boss, Quisenberry, who was sent to prison in 1997 for overcharging Medicare at the same time Harris was working for him. Regulators now have more tools to devote to investigating people like Harris, but tracking Medicare dollars remains a challenge.

Prosecutors allege that Harris concealed other assets during his six-year scheme. “The government believes the defendant has hidden this currency and that it is available for restitution,” says a government document filed in the case.

In their sentencing report, prosecutors claimed that “an intimate associate of the defendant informed the government she believes [Harris] has assets hidden in Venezuela.” Similar concerns were expressed by Browning and Harris' ex-wife in other court filings.

Even after his arrest, Kay Harris found more than $150,000 hidden in the home that agents didn't find during their raid, says her lawyer, Jerome Phillips.

Browning, from her Texas prison cell, says she believes Harris buried money in Michigan before his arrest.

In his new office, surrounded by inspirational messages on courage and character, he insists he's been honest about his assets. After all, he says, he's learned to accept what he can't control. He insists he doesn't want the stressful life associated with material possessions.

Leaning back in his office chair, he smiles and insists he'll be a success again someday.

“They can take all my money. They can take all my friends,” he says. “But they can't take my mind.”



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