A neurosurgeon pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal criminal charge for accepting $3.3 million in bribes for performing spinal surgeries at a now-defunct Long Beach hospital whose owner was later imprisoned for committing a massive workers’ compensation system scam.

Lokesh Tantuwaya, 55, of San Diego, entered his plea to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and to violate the federal anti-kickback statute. He has been in federal custody since May 2021 after he was found to have violated the terms of his pretrial release, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

U.S. District Judge Josephine L. Staton scheduled a Dec. 9 sentencing hearing, at which time Tantuwaya will face up to five years in federal prison.

According to his plea agreement and statements at the change-of-plea hearing, from 2010 to 2013, Tantuwaya accepted money from Michael Drobot, who owned Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, in exchange for Tantuwaya performing spinal surgeries at that hospital. The bribe amount varied depending on the type of spinal surgery.

Pacific Hospital specialized in surgeries, especially spinal and orthopedic procedures. Drobot conspired with doctors, chiropractors and marketers to pay kickbacks and bribes in return for the referral of thousands of patients to Pacific Hospital for spinal surgeries and other medical services paid for primarily through the California workers’ compensation system.

During its final five years, the scheme resulted in the submission of more than $500 million in medical bills for spine surgeries involving kickbacks.

Tantuwaya entered into contracts with Drobot and Drobot-owned companies. Tantuwaya admitted in his plea agreement that he knew or deliberately was ignorant that the payments were being given to him in exchange for bringing his patient surgeries to Pacific Hospital.

In furtherance of the scheme, Tantuwaya met with Drobot and Drobot’s employees. Tantuwaya further admitted to depositing bribe checks into his bank accounts, according to documents filed in Los Angeles federal court.

Tantuwaya admitted that he knew the receipt of money in exchange for the referral of medical service was illegal and that he owed a fiduciary duty to his patients to not accept money in exchange for taking their surgeries to Pacific Hospital.

In total, Tantuwaya received $3.3 million in illegal payments.

In April 2013, law enforcement searched Pacific Hospital, which was sold later that year, bringing the kickback scheme to an end.

There have been 23 defendants convicted for participating in the kickback scheme, according to federal prosecutors.

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