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Feds allege a kickback scheme at the Philly VA hospital

Philadelphia VA Medical Center (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs/Released)

A manager at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center has been charged with accepting thousands of dollars in kickbacks to steer inflated or phony contracts to a Florida couple.

Investigators with the inspector general’s office at the Department of Veterans Affairs say they caught Ralph Johnson, the chief of environmental services, accepting the bribes in cash-stuffed binders and packages mailed to his home in Lancaster County last year.

They began investigating him after two VA contractors indicted for bribing staff at hospitals in Miami and West Palm Beach, Fla., said they also made trips to Philadelphia to pay Johnson to secure contracts, according to court filings in his case.

Johnson, 54, who was charged last week, faces up to 15 years in federal prison if convicted on bribery charges.

His attorney, Hope C. Lefeber, described her client as a “very respected” employee of the department for nearly three decades. He has been suspended as a result of the investigation, she said.

Johnson’s arrest is the latest in a series of prosecutions stemming from an effort to crack down on corrupt contracting within the system responsible for medical care for nine million veterans across the nation.

Last year, federal prosecutors in Florida indicted 15 VA employees and business owners, alleging that they had been involved in a scheme to bilk millions meant for veterans’ care through inflated or unfulfilled purchase orders.

Among them were Earron Starks, 50, and his wife, Carlicha, 41, of Hallandale Beach, who admitted in March to paying kickbacks on a collective $7 million in contracts for items ranging from toilet paper to sophisticated medical equipment, which were awarded to two companies they ran — EKNO Medical Supply and Colonnade Medical Supply — between 2009 and 2019.

They even paid a disabled veteran to lie that she was an owner of one of their businesses so they could take advantage of contracting rules that favored companies owned by those who had been wounded in service, prosecutors said.

The Starkses began cooperating with the investigation after their arrest and informed agents that they had also been bribing Johnson for over a year, according to court filings in Johnson’s case.

Wearing recording equipment, they allegedly met with Johnson in June 2019 at his office on the 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, prosecutors said, 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,” he is quoted as saying in court filings. “I like to work hard, but I sure like to play hard, too.”

Two months later, the Starkses recorded Johnson again — this time meeting with him in a hotel suite in Orlando during a convention. He allegedly 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 Starkses would mail him $10,000, he said, and keep the remaining $70,000 for themselves, according to the transcript.

A spokesperson for the Philadelphia VA Medical Center did not immediately return requests for comment Monday.


(c) 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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