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Over the past two years, six administrators, doctors, or counselors who worked for NME or its subsidiary, now-defunct Psychiatric Institute of Fort Worth, have been convicted in federal courts in Fort Worth of paying or receiving kickbacks for patient referrals, filing false claims with government and private health insurers, and falsifying records.

In the latest of those cases, Dr. Henry Bonham, a Fort Worth psychiatrist, was sentenced last week to seven years in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $3.6 million for a scheme in which he received kickbacks from PIFW, filed false claims, and covered up records. A Colleyville psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Gross, was arrested in London in May and faces extradition proceedings. He went on the lam after he was indicted in Fort Worth on charges of accepting $861,000 in kickbacks for patient referrals from PIFW.

Jim Moriarty, a Houston civil attorney representing 600 former psychiatric patients who are suing doctors and hospitals involved in the scandal, says Coggins is one of the few U.S. attorneys who didn't drop the ball in the matter. "The Northern District was putting these assholes in jail when a lot of prosecutors were sitting on their thumbs," he says. "In some ways, these prosecutions were brilliant...Psychiatrists are going to be talking about Bonham and Gross for a long time."

But he said he was disappointed that the biggest fish in the Northern District's net, NME regional director Peter Alexis, got off with only five years of probation. Alexis, who oversaw NME's Texas hospitals, admitted conspiring to pay a total of $40 million in bribes to doctors and psychologists in exchange for patient referrals.

Coggins says his office requested prison time for Alexis, who was cut a deal for cooperating with prosecutors and the FBI. Alexis could have received a 10-year sentence. Instead, Coggins says, U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall went outside sentencing guidelines when he ordered probation. Alexis was also ordered to pay restitution and required to give up art and antiques, Cartier jewelry, and furs.

"Have we done enough on health care fraud?" Coggins asks rhetorically. "Absolutely not. We've barely scratched the surface."

Grumbling about the trickle of health care cases comes mostly from upper-tier lawyers who grew plump on the river of bank fraud cases in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Coggins says.

"They're angling for another source of rich clients," he adds. "We'll probably never get that bounty of cases, but we've had some impressive ones, and we have a bunch in the works, especially staged automobile accidents with involvement by doctors and lawyers."

Moving against health care fraud has come with a "steep learning curve" because of the complexity of medical billing, he says. Like about 90 percent of white collar cases, "they usually come to us through insiders and whistle blowers." Coggins' office received money this year to add a third health fraud prosecutor to the two already in place, which should help pick things up, he says. About 70 cases are currently in the works.

Compared to kickback schemers and medical fraud artists, street criminals are soft targets in the courtroom, most criminal lawyers say.M XCorner crack dealers, armed robbers, and teenage gangsters are usually too careless or simple-minded to evade detection, and too poor to hire first-rate lawyers once they're caught. The evidence--which federal agencies are capable of gathering in buckets--tends to be easy for jurors to grasp.

Coggins is going after this class of lowlifes like Kojak on a caffeine lollipop.

Statistics compiled for the Dallas Observer from computerized case files show that violent crime and drug cases account for just over 50 percent of the 1,495 defendants Coggins' office filed cases against in 1996. Nationally, 43 percent of federal cases involved drug trafficking and violent crime, according to the United States Attorneys Statistical Report.

Asked about his office's biggest cases, Coggins immediately names three trials that ended in death sentences for violent criminals.

The death penalty was extended to a wider array of crimes in the federal system--murder in the commission of a robbery or a carjacking, for instance--by the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994. Since that law went on the books, Coggins' office has secured more death penalties than any other in the country. Three out of the first four under the 1994 act were Northern District convictions. Of the 13 men on federal death row, Coggins put three of them there.

In Lubbock, ex-Army Ranger Louis Jones was sentenced to death in November 1995 for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Joy McBride, who was abducted from Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo. Since then, Orlando Hall and Bruce Webster have been sentenced to die for the kidnapping and murder of Lisa Rene, who was abducted from an Arlington apartment and killed in Arkansas in 1994.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec