The owner of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, in Florida, where eight elederly people died after a power outage due to Hurricane Irma, is no stranger to investigations.
Jack Jacobo Michel, a 52-year-old doctor who grew up in Colombia and graduated from the University of Miami, was charged in a 2004 federal civil case for participating in a network that allegedly defrauded millions of dollars from Medicare, the medical program for the elderly.
The 2004 lawsuit was dismissed in 2006 after a $15.4 million financial settlement was reached with the government, in which the accused admitted to no wrongdoing.
The Hollywood Police Department has opened a criminal investigation that could lead to manslaughter charges if the Broward state attorney’s office concludes that employees, administrators or the owner of the center acted with culpable negligence for the safety of the deceased elderly patients.
Under Florida law, culpable negligence in a manslaughter case can carry up to 30 years in prison.
The business became affiliated with South Miami’s Larkin Community Hospital as part of bankruptcy sale in 2015.
According to the 2004 federal lawsuit, Michel received up to $7,000 a month in illegal commissions for referring patients at Miami area nursing homes to Larkin Community Hospital, which he now owns and is board chairman.
Many of the patients received unnecessary treatments that the hospital charged to Medicare and Medicaid, according to the lawsuit, which Univision obtained a copy of. The illegal commissions were presented as expenses for providing emergency room services or were paid through a pharmacy owned by Michel, it adds.
The events occurred between 1997 and 1998. Michel's friend Philip Esformes was als implicated in the alleged fraud. He currently is in prison for another case involving the largest Medicare fraud in U.S. history.
Esformes spent part of his fortune on a life of luxury: Miami Beach mansions, parties, and escort services.
Civil, not criminal case
Sources familiar with the 2006 case refused to tell Univision why the case was brought in civil rather than criminal court. The settlement agreement was signed by Alexander Acosta, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
When the Justice Department announced the withdrawal of the lawsuit in November 2006, Michel told The Miami Herald that the allegations were false.
Jeffrey Dickstein, the assistant prosecutor who handled the case and now works for a private firm in Miami, declined to explain to Univision why the case file was filed in civil court and not in criminal court. "I cannot talk about a case in which I worked as a prosecutor, I'm really sorry," Dickstein said.
A retired federal agent who was also directly involved in the case said he preferred not to comment due to the ongoing investigation into the Hollywood Hills nursing home deaths.
Another of the accused, James H. Desnick, is a wealthy Chicago ophthalmologist who once ran for U.S. Senate.
Michel did not answer calls from Univision. In the years following the litigation he devoted himself to repairing the image of Larkin Hospital. According to a source familiar with the hospital's operations, Larkin secured contracts with the federal and state government to treat military patients and prison inmates.
Medicare records show that the nursing home, owned by Larkin Health Systems Inc., has received below-average ratings from state regulators.
Considered bright and ambitious by those who know him, Michel was born in Palestine and emigrated, aged six, with his family to Barranquilla on Colombia's Atlantic coast.
He studied at Miami-Dade Community College and then enrolled in medical school at the University of Miami, where he ran the residency program.
The Broward Medical Examiner’s office released the names of the dead Wednesday: Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Estella Hendricks, 71; Betty Hibbard, 84; Manuel Mario Mendieta, 96; Gail Nova, 71; Bobby Owens, 84; and Albertina Vega, 99.