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Claims Worker Gets 6 Years for Stealing $496,000

January 10, 1989|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

A medical claims processor who diverted $496,000 to his own use to win back his estranged wife was sentenced Monday in Los Angeles federal court to six years in prison and ordered to undergo psychological counseling.

Robert Harrelson, 26, who aroused the suspicion of fellow Cigna Corp. employees when he showed up for the company softball team's practice driving a new BMW car, said he had begun funneling the money into a secret bank account to lure back his wife's affections and then could not stop.

Ironically, it was a phone call from Harrelson's wife after his disappearance last August that sent authorities to Honolulu, where the claims processor led U.S. Postal Service inspectors on a chase through city streets before surrendering.

"The wife turned the defendant in of her own volition. She was scared of him," Assistant U.S. Atty. David Katz said.

Harrelson had claimed to be a member of the 1984 Spanish Olympic basketball team when he first went to work at Cigna's Northridge claims center in early 1988.

Soon, however, he began processing claims to a fictitious company he had set up with a post office box address. The fraudulent claims eventually totaled more than $453,000 and another $43,000 in checks were taken from the Cigna mail room, prosecutors said.

Wife Took Everything

Within a few months, Harrelson bought a BMW, a Cadillac Eldorado and a Honda Accord, $2,400 worth of jewelry, $35,000 in paintings and made a down payment on a new house in Chatsworth, the government said.

Once he started diverting the money, defense attorney Alan Lanspaugh said, "It became almost like an addiction. He kept punching out those checks, because it was so easy."

Lanspaugh said that although Harrelson fled to Hawaii, he was planning to turn himself in once he sold the BMW to raise money to hire a lawyer. The attorney denied that Harrelson's wife had ever been afraid of his client, but said she has since admitted that she made her original statements to postal inspectors because she feared criminal liability herself.

But Katz said Harrelson's wife has also said he was planning not to turn himself in, but to adopt a new identity, go to work for another insurance company and launch the same scheme again.

"He's not willing to work hard to get the finer things in life," the prosecutor said. "He wants to live a life that is way beyond his means and ability. . . . And he does it as a thief and a crook."

U.S. District Judge Pamela Ann Rymer granted Harrelson's request to undergo psychological counseling while in custody and also ordered him to pay $345,977 in restitution to Cigna Corp.

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