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Florida pharmacist, accused of defrauding Tricare, faces loss of mansion

By JAY WEAVER | Miami Herald | Published: November 26, 2016

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — A South Florida pharmacist got so rich from billing the federal government millions for prescription drugs sold to U.S. military personnel that he bought a French-inspired chateau in the town of Southwest Ranches that was once owned by movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Serge Francois purchased the 10,000-square-foot mansion in exclusive Landmark Ranch Estates for $3.6 million last year from Y100 radio host “Mobile Mike,” who had acquired it from the professional wrestler-turned-Hollywood leading man.

But of late, Francois has suffered such a dramatic reversal of fortune that he might soon lose the six-bedroom, six-bathroom property on 2-plus acres.

The owner of Atlantic Pharmacy has been held in a tiny jail cell in downtown Miami since his arrest in early November on charges of conspiring to fleece $37 million from the Tricare health insurance program for military personnel as well as another federal coverage network for government employees.

The government programs paid more than $31 million to Atlantic after the Pompano Beach-based pharmacy submitted fraudulent claims for compounded medications that were not necessary and not properly prescribed between 2010 and 2015, according to an indictment. The alleged scheme is similar to the Medicare rackets that have plagued South Florida for more than a decade.

In addition to seeking to take Francois’ Southwest Ranches estate, the U.S. attorney’s office is going after other properties, various bank accounts and numerous luxury vehicles, including a Rolls Royce, a Ferrari, a Land Rover, a Lamborghini, a Cadillac Escalade and Mercedes Benz.

Francois, who pleaded not guilty to defrauding Tricare, paying kickbacks to patient recruiters, laundering money and obstructing justice, is one of 14 defendants implicated in the Atlantic Pharmacy case. Almost all of them, including four South Florida doctors, have pleaded guilty.

Francois, a licensed Florida pharmacist for 20 years who overcame a previous federal prosecution almost a decade ago, is now fighting a detention order by a magistrate judge who found he is a risk of flight and danger to the community.

Defense attorneys for Francois, a U.S. citizen born in Brooklyn, said in court papers that he “relishes his opportunity to fight the charges against him and clear his name.” Lawyers Sean Ellsworth and Bernard Cassidy said “he has no plan to go anywhere” if he is granted bail at an upcoming hearing before U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles.

“For over a year now, Mr. Francois was well aware this indictment and arrest were coming,” they wrote. “In July of 2016, through counsel, he offered to surrender. He has simply been waiting for his opportunity to fight the charges.”

But on Wednesday, federal prosecutor Daniel Bernstein said that because Francois is facing the potential equivalent of a life sentence if convicted at trial, he “might conclude that becoming a fugitive is a better option.”

In court papers, Bernstein said a Jacksonville couple — Celep Simsir and Sonsoles Simsir — recently cut plea deals and asserted that Francois paid their companies millions in kickback for patient referrals. Some of that information came from the couple’s employees, associates or even patients themselves.

The prosecutor also said Francois paid kickbacks to several South Florida physicians, including Fernando Garcia Dorta, who also pleaded guilty and is expected to testify that “he almost never spoke with or examined any of the patients he provided prescriptions for.”

Bernstein pointed out that Garcia wrote prescriptions that enabled Atlantic Pharmacy to submit more than $25 million to Tricare alone.

He said other government witnesses who worked at Atlantic stated that it was an “almost everyday occurrence” that medications were returned to the pharmacy via Federal Express from customers.

“The medications were then relabeled to be shipped to other customers,” Bernstein wrote in a filing. “Witnesses stated that patients routinely called the pharmacy and complained about the fact that they did not order the medication or did not want the refills that they were receiving.”

Francois’ “right-hand man” in the alleged scheme was Patrick Tonge, 40, of Southwest Ranches, who was an Atlantic Pharmacy employee. Tonge, who pleaded not guilty, was found to be flight risk. He is being held in the same detention center as his one-time boss.

©2016 Miami Herald
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