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Couple plead guilty to lesser charges after trial fizzles for prosecutors

Maribel and Richard Tinimbang on Thursday, April 21, 2016 at the Dirksen Federal Building. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune) (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

What began as a $45 million health care fraud trial ended Wednesday with a series of guilty pleas for mostly minor offenses involving a total of less than $9,000 in Medicare losses.

Richard and Maribel Tinimbang and two alleged co-conspirators had been on trial for the past five weeks on charges alleging they paid kickbacks for patient referrals and fraudulently inflated Medicare bills for their home health care businesses between 2008 and 2014.

But the case fizzled in stunning fashion after federal prosecutors failed to hand over key evidence to defense lawyers.

On Wednesday, Richard Tinimbang pleaded guilty to three felony counts, admitting he filed two false statements to Medicare in 2012 for physical therapy appointments that never happened — causing a total of about $8,400 in losses.

Tinimbang, 39, also pleaded guilty to making a false statement on an immigration application for a woman from their native Philippines. He claimed she was going to work for one of his companies but actually was being brought to the U.S. to work as a personal assistant to his mother.

Tinimbang faces up to a year in prison when he is sentenced in June, but his lawyers can seek probation.

Maribel Tinimbang, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of violating health care privacy laws and was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer on Wednesday to a year of probation.

"This has been very difficult for me and my children," a sobbing Maribel Tinimbang said in court before she was sentenced. "I’m so sorry. I want you to know that you will never see me again."

Monette Mojares, a longtime nurse and supervisor in one of the Tinimbangs’ companies, pleaded guilty to a felony count of making a fraudulent Medicare claim and faces from four to 10 months in prison.

Earlier this week, prosecutors agreed to drop the prosecution of a fourth defendant, Vivian Baldemor, a nurse accused of recruiting patients into the scheme, as long as she stays out of trouble, according to her lawyer, Michael Leonard.

Prosecutors had alleged the couple used the ill-gotten gains from the fraud scheme to fund a lavish lifestyle, including a 5,000-square-foot Lincolnwood mansion, a small fleet of luxury SUVs and at least $1 million in Facebook stock, according to the charges.

As part of their plea deals, the Tinimbangs will keep their house but have agreed to forfeit other assets, including a Mercedes, a BMW and a Range Rover, as well as more than $3 million from several bank accounts associated with their businesses.

After court, attorney Theodore Poulos, who represents Richard Tinimbang, said he was pleased with the outcome but still thought the government had "overcharged the case in a number of different ways."

"We were optimistic" that the jury would have found his client not guilty even if the case had proceeded, Poulos said.

The plea deals mark an embarrassing end of a prosecution touted in 2015 by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch as a significant part of a nationwide crackdown she called "the largest criminal health care fraud takedown" in the department’s history. The U.S. Justice Department’s health care fraud task force out of Washington led the prosecution at the trial in Chicago.

The Tinimbangs likely would have faced a decade or more in prison if convicted on the most serious charges.

The government’s case began to unravel last week after defense lawyers learned that prosecutors had failed to turn over grand jury transcripts of testimony by an IRS agent who was about to testify that the couple conspired to launder the proceeds of their illegal business, court records show.

That revelation in turn exposed other instances in which prosecutors had either withheld grand jury testimony or misrepresented what witnesses had told investigators about the Tinimbangs’ business practices, court records show.

According to the indictment, the couple’s business, Patients First Physical Therapy, purported to provide in-home therapy services to patients of three other companies in which their family also held a stake.

But the couple and their employees falsified records to make patients appear more ill than they actually were, federal authorities alleged. In others, they paid kickbacks of up to $1,200 for patient referrals, the charges alleged.

Several nurses who worked for the Tinimbangs have previously pleaded guilty to their roles in the Medicare fraud scheme, as did a marketer, Sherwin Cubelo, who admitted he received $300,000 in bribes and kickbacks from the Tinimbangs for patient referrals.

Also charged was Richard Tinimbang’s mother, Josephine, who fled the country in 2012 and remains a fugitive.

Twitter @jmetr22b

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