U.S. Department of Justice

Last fall the U.S. Department of Justice proudly claimed a major victory for its Health Care Corporate Fraud Strike Force when it nailed Tenet Healthcare Corp. for a multimillion-dollar kickback and bribery scheme. It was the strike force’s first major victory—it also may have been its last.

That’s at least in part because the DOJ, under the Trump administration and new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has announced new priorities: violent crime, drugs and illegal immigration.

In restructuring to focus on those priorities, the DOJ has gutted the Health Care Corporate Fraud Strike Force, according to at least two high-level sources who worked at the Justice Department until recently. The sources declined to be named, as being identified could affect their current jobs and clients.

The sources said the strike force has been cut from five full-time lawyers to only two – assistant chief Sally Molloy and trial attorney William Chang. And both are splitting their time in the strike force with other duties.

The DOJ declined an interview request for this story. But DOJ spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle issued this statement: “The Health Care Corporate Strike Force, as with the entire health care fraud unit, is going strong under steady leadership—continuing to vigorously investigate and hold accountable individuals and companies that engage in fraud, including tackling an opioid epidemic that claimed 60,000 American lives last year.”

What is known is that the strike force was created in the fall of 2015, with five dedicated lawyers working on about a dozen of the most complex corporate fraud cases in the health care space.

Andrew Weissmann, the then-chief of the DOJ’s fraud section, told a health care conference in April 2016 that the section was placing “a heightened emphasis” on corporate health care fraud investigations. He pointed to the recently established Corporate Fraud Strike Force that he said would focus resources in investigation and prosecution of larger corporate health care law violations, as opposed to smaller groups or individuals.

That’s exactly what happened with Tenet Healthcare, a whistleblower case involving Medicaid fraud that had been languishing in court since 2009, until the strike force stepped in and threw multiple resources at it.

The resolution came in October 2016. Tenet agreed to a massive $516 million settlement and a non-prosecution agreement that imposed compliance reforms and an independent monitor for three years. Two subsidiaries in Georgia pleaded guilty, two individuals have been convicted and a third has been charged.

Among other admissions, Tenet said that supervisors lied to in-house counsel about the purpose of millions of dollars in contracts, which purportedly were for “services” but really were bribes and kickbacks to clinics and doctors for sending Medicaid patients to Tenet hospitals.

So far, no other cases have been resolved and credited to the strike force, and the departed members have not been replaced. But less complex health care related cases are still being investigated.

The lawyer openings on the strike force were exacerbated when, on April 14, Sessions imposed a hiring freeze on the DOJ’s Criminal Division as well as on U.S. Attorney Offices, as reported by The New York Times, which obtained a copy of the freeze memo.

Some DOJ lawyers believe, sources said, that white-collar crime and corporate fraud resources are being shifted to cover Sessions’ new priorities of violent crime, drugs and illegal immigration. That emphasis, they said, can be seen in who runs the DOJ’s criminal division.

Under former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, himself a white-collar crime prosecutor and then corporate defense attorney, assistant attorney general Leslie Caldwell led the division. Caldwell specialized in securities fraud and white-collar crime, and had participated in the Enron Corp. prosecution.

Under Sessions, himself a former law and order prosecutor in Alabama, the criminal division now reports to deputy assistant attorney general Kenneth Blanco.  Blanco has a long history of bringing cases centered on drugs and violent crime in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Southern Florida, and in Main Justice in Washington, D.C., where he served as chief of the narcotic and dangerous drug section at the DOJ.

Contact Sue Reisinger at sreisinger@alm.com and Kristen Rasmussen at krasmussen@alm.com.