Former Florida football player convicted of $20 million Tricare fraud conspiracy
By JAY WEAVER | The Miami Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 6, 2018
MIAMI (Tribune News Service) —Monty Grow, a former University of Florida and NFL player who made a small fortune selling pharmaceutical drugs, took the unusual step of testifying in his trial on charges of swindling millions from a federal program that provides medical insurance for the U.S. military.
The 46-year-old Grow was hit again and again with questions by a federal prosecutor about receiving and paying kickbacks to score lucrative patient referrals for a major South Florida pharmacy.
“You were essentially buying and selling patients for a pharmacy?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jon Juenger pressed Grow.
“No, I was not,” he said calmly.
On Monday, a dozen Miami federal jurors found that they did not believe him.
The jury unanimously convicted Grow of a healthcare fraud conspiracy for bilking $20 million from the TRICARE program for military members, veterans and their families. He was also convicted of conspiring to receive and pay kickbacks for referring hundreds of military beneficiaries to the Pompano Beach-based pharmacy, Patient Care America, as well as of money laundering. But Grow, who remained stoic while the guilty verdicts were read, was acquitted of numerous other related charges.
U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno ordered that Grow, who lives in Tampa, be taken into custody immediately by U.S. marshals because of the amount of money involved in the healthcare fraud case. He faces up to 20 years in prison at his sentencing hearing on April 16.
The jury, which was given instructions on kickbacks and other legal issues by Moreno at the end of the six-day trial, had to decide whether Grow intentionally defrauded the government program or was simply paid lavish but legitimate commissions by the pharmacy for referring the TRICARE patients.
“We are disappointed with the verdict,” Grow’s defense attorneys, Daniel Rashbaum and Jeffrey Marcus, said. “We think that the acquittal on more than half of the counts after four days of deliberation is inconsistent with the result and makes little sense. We will continue to fight for Mr. Grow, who is an innocent man.”
Grow was accused in a 49-count indictment of hiring an independent marketing team — including former University of Florida star and retired NFL quarterback Shane Matthews — in the conspiracy to fleece the TRICARE program.
Last week, Matthews, 47, who played with the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and other teams over a 14-year pro career, was sentenced to three months in prison for his bit role working for Grow’s marketing company. Matthews was paid $440,000 for lining up sales representatives who then landed TRICARE patients for the pharmacy.
Grow and his network of sales representatives referred about 700 patients to Patient Care America, which received $40 million from the government program for supplying costly pain and scar creams along with wellness vitamins between 2014 and 2015. For those referrals, PCA paid half of those federal reimbursements to Grow under a contract agreement. With his cut of the taxpayer funds, Grow kept $10 million for himself and paid out the rest in kickbacks to his marketing associates who recruited TRICARE patients. The sales representatives acted as independent contractors, akin to Avon or Mary Kay reps.
Eventually, Grow himself went from being an independent contractor to a full-time employee for Patient Care America, which factored into his acquittals on numerous kickback charges.
At trial, prosecutors said many of the military members who were referred by his marketing network to Patient Care America did not need the costly compounds, which are specially mixed medications unlike typical commercial drugs. Many only agreed to buy the compound medications because Grow and his sales team paid kickbacks to the patients, who also referred other family members to the pharmacy. Prosecutors said Grow’s team covered patients’ expensive co-payments for the creams and vitamins. One sales representative even paid her stable of patients $1,000 each for filling out a customer survey after receiving their medications from the pharmacy.
The 2016 indictment accusing Grow of conspiracy, fraud, kickbacks and money laundering did not charge Patient Care America or any of its top executives — though prosecutors described them at trial as “unindicted co-conspirators.”
Throughout the trial, prosecutors portrayed Grow as a clever salesman driven by greed who knew he was breaking the law while he pocketed $13,500 for each of the patients that his marketing company referred to the Broward County pharmacy. He owns a Tampa waterfront home, a Range Rover, a Porsche 911 and has millions in an e-trade stock market account.
“This was a pyramid scheme,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Larsen told the 12-person jury during closing arguments last week. “He took advantage of these folks and he made millions. ... The bottom line is, these people signed up because they were paid [kickbacks].”
Grow’s defense attorneys, Rashbaum and Marcus, depicted the former football player as a lawful, successful businessman whose NFL career as a cornerback was cut short by injury in 1996 after playing for the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars. They said he began a marketing career in the field of compound pharmacies and later broke out on his own with a Tampa company called MGTEN — his initials and jersey number as a ballplayer.
The defense argued that Grow set up his network of sales representatives to handle hundreds of TRICARE patients and arrange for them to see doctors through “telemedicine” companies. Grow paid the physicians for legitimate consultations, and they approved the vast majority of prescriptions for the compound medications provided by Patient Care America. The defense also said Grow paid his independent contractors “commissions” — not kickbacks — for finding the TRICARE patients.
At trial, the defense attorneys played a federal undercover phone recording from early 2016 in which one of Grow’s former sales representatives expressed her concern about the nature of his company’s patient referrals to the compounding pharmacy and that Department of Defense criminal agents had questioned her about it. Grow, unaware that the sales rep was cooperating with investigators and that he was being recorded in the phone conversation, said nothing to implicate himself in the suspected unlawful scheme.
“We didn’t knowingly do it,” he told the sales rep on the recording. “We didn’t do it on purpose.”
After the recording was played for jurors, Rashbaum asked his client: “As you sit here today, did you ever attempt to break any law?”
Grow’s response: “No, I did not.”
During closing arguments, Rashbaum said numerous emails, text messages and other documents showed that Grow acted lawfully in dealing with the TRICARE patients, sales representatives, telemedicine companies and the Pompano Beach compounding pharmacy. He repeatedly told jurors that a “document doesn’t have a motive to lie,” arguing that none submitted by the pharmacy to TRICARE were false.
Grow stood trial alone because an associate with whom he shared the kickbacks for the patient referrals pleaded guilty in early January to a conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud. Ginger Lay faces up to 10 years in prison but could receive less time for testifying against her former boss.
In his closing argument, Rashbaum accused Lay, who is from Mississippi, of lying on the witness stand about being instructed by Grow to alter prescriptions and pay patients’ co-payments. He also said it was her idea alone to create the scheme to pay $1,000 to each TRICARE patient who filled out a customer survey.
Grow testified he had no idea about Lay’s survey program. Grow said when he learned about her doing it, he discussed the problem with Patient Care America executives. Then he ordered her to stop the survey and payments. When Lay asked Grow in a text message about paying patients in April 2015, he responded: “I wouldn’t be paying anyone.”
In less than a year of working as a sales contractor for Grow, Lay made $6 million in commissions from his company, though prosecutors say they were kickbacks for her TRICARE patient referrals to the Broward pharmacy. TRICARE eventually stopped reimbursing Patient Care America and other pharmacies around the country because of controversy over the costly compounding program.