VA hospital manager, Army veteran sentenced for accepting thousands of dollars in kickbacks
The Philadelphia Inquirer March 15, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — A former manager at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center was sentenced to six months in federal prison Tuesday for accepting thousands of dollars in kickbacks to steer inflated or phony contracts to a Florida couple.
Ralph Johnson, who served as the chief of environmental services at the health-care facility until the discovery of his crimes, admitted that he had accepted roughly $30,000 in bribes between 2018 and 2019 hidden in cash-stuffed binders and packages mailed to his Lancaster County home.
In fashioning Johnson’s punishment, U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III credited his past military service and his extensive cooperation with federal authorities investigating fraud within the system responsible for the health care of some 9 million veterans across the nation.
But the judge insisted some prison time was necessary.
“You were a public servant,” he told Johnson. “You were an employee of the United States government. Your job was to serve the people, not to take advantage of your position in any illegal way.”
Johnson, 56, apologized to his former employers and the court.
“I can’t continue to apologize,” he said. “Throughout these 2 1/2 years [since his arrest] there’s not a day I don’t think about the wrongness that I did.”
The inspector general’s office at the Department of Veterans Affairs began investigating Johnson in 2018 after two contractors indicted for bribing staff at hospitals in Miami and West Palm Beach, Fla., said they also made trips to Philadelphia and other VA facilities on the East Coast to pay off officials there in exchange for contracts, too.
The contractors — Earron Starks, 53, and his wife, Carlicha, 44, of Hallandale Beach, Fla. — have since pleaded guilty to paying kickbacks on a collective $7 million in contracts at Florida VA facilities.
The contracts, for items ranging from toilet paper to sophisticated medical equipment, were awarded to two companies they ran — EKNO Medical Supply and Collondale Medical Supply — between 2009 and 2019.
After their arrest, the Starkses began cooperating with authorities and led investigators to Johnson, whom they had been bribing for more than a year.
At Johnson’s sentencing, his attorney, Hope C. Lefeber, said he was first introduced to the couple by a woman he had been having an extramarital affair with while they were both working at a VA facility in Mechanicsburg, W.Va.
“He was wrong — terribly wrong — and succumbed to his feelings of guilt toward his former paramour ... and the opportunity for his own financial gain,” she said. “However, Mr. Johnson believed the contracts would be fulfilled and the work would get done.”
Prosecutors pushed back against Lefeber’s characterization of her client as a decorated veteran who had served his country honorably — first in combat, then at Veterans Affairs — only to tarnish his reputation by succumbing to pressure from his scorned former mistress.
Assistant U.S. Attorney K.T. Newton questioned whether — despite Johnson’s deployment to the Middle East around the time of the Gulf War — he had actually seen combat, as he had told the court.
She said active hostilities had ended by the time Johnson was dispatched as an Army mechanic. Johnson bristled, insisting he had received a Bronze Star for his service.
Still, when Bartle directly asked him whether the Iraqi government was still fighting American troops when his deployment began, Johnson hedged.
“I served in the Gulf War. I love this country,” he said. “They don’t just give medals when you didn’t serve in the war.”
When it came to the bribery scheme, Newton said, Johnson demanded bribes from the Starkses from their very first meeting.
In June 2019, while wearing recording equipment, the couple met with Johnson at his office on the VA hospital’s campus in West Philadelphia and slipped him a binder filled with $5,000 they owed him from a contract he had previously sent their way.
He walked them out to the parking lot afterward and reminded them that their next kickback was due at the start of the following month — before the July Fourth weekend.
“That’s going to be a long weekend ... and I like to enjoy the weekend,” Johnson told them, according to a transcript of that recording included in government court filings. “I like to work hard, but I sure like to play hard, too.”
The Starkses recorded Johnson two months later — this time at a meeting in an Orlando hotel suite during a convention. He discussed steering a tree-trimming contract to one of their companies, explaining that while there was only $4,000 worth of work involved, the contract price would be $84,000. The couple, he suggested, would mail him $10,000 and keep the remaining $70,000 for themselves, according to the transcript.
In all, the fraudulent and bloated contracts Johnson sent the Starkses’ way cost the Philadelphia VAMC more than $443,000 — a sum Bartle ordered Johnson to repay at a rate of $50 a month once he finishes his prison term.
“He was in a position of trust, a position of power at the VA,” said Newton. “And he sold that position to get money he was not entitled to.”
Johnson is at least the third former employee of the Philadelphia VAMC to face charges for corruption-related schemes since 2020. Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Gary Salter, a former supervisor in Johnson’s environmental services department, for allegedly accepting $28,000 in kickbacks between 2018 and 2020.
And last year, Bruce Minor, a former accounting clerk, was sentenced to two years in prison for embezzling nearly $500,000 through filing fraudulent travel expense reports between 2015 and 2019.
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