United States Federal Courthouse Los Angeles. Photo by John Schreiber.
United States Federal Courthouse Los Angeles. Photo by John Schreiber.

A Hawthorne woman responsible for more than $7 million in fraudulent Medicare billings, mostly for expensive power wheelchairs, was sentenced Wednesday to 6 1/2 years in federal prison.

Adeline Ekwebelem, 51, was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald to pay restitution of $3.4 million and serve three years of supervised release after getting out of prison.

“She was the one that orchestrated the fraud and obtained the bulk of the proceeds,” the judge said.

Ekwebelem was convicted last September of 16 federal charges stemming from the scam run out of her Gardena-based Adelco Medical Distributors Inc.

Defense attorney Joseph Shemaria, arguing for a two-year-sentence, said his Nigerian-born client “fell into the scheme” and was “totally naive about our laws and Medicare’s rules and regulations.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristen Williams countered that far from being naive about the system, Ekwebelem was “a micro-manager who detailed every aspect of her business.”

“This wasn’t someone who didn’t know what she was doing,” according to the prosecutor, who said the defendant presented “a real risk to the public.”

In a tearful statement to the court, Ekwebelem said it was “unfortunate that I got into the business — but my intent was to help people.”

Evidence presented during the trial showed that Adelco billed Medicare for medically unnecessary medical equipment for beneficiaries who were often recruited off the street.

Williams told the court that such schemes hurt the federally funded health insurance program, the public, and honest medical equipment suppliers.

Ekwebelem paid illegal kickbacks to people known as marketers to recruit those beneficiaries and paid kickbacks to a handful of complicit doctors in exchange for fraudulent prescriptions for the wheelchairs, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Those doctors included Dr. Charles Okoye, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison, and Dr. Uche Chukwudi, who fled after being indicted and is currently a fugitive, prosecutors said.

Three of Adelco’s marketers — Romie Tucker, Cindy Santana and Maritza Hernandez — also pleaded guilty to receiving kickbacks from Ekwebelem.

Ekwebelem submitted more than $7 million in fraudulent claims to Medicare and received more than $3.4 million for those claims.

Fitzgerald ordered the defendant to surrender June 30 to begin serving her sentence, but Shemaria said he would soon file a motion for bail pending appeal.

The judge replied that it was unlikely that he would grant such a motion.

City News Service

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