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Compton wins bid to recover money from workers' comp scheme

The jury agrees that a former city worker colluded with two people to overbill the program. The defense argued that the case was really about unscrupulous city officials trying to settle personal vendettas.

October 07, 2010|By Abby Sewell and Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times

A jury in Compton on Wednesday found that a former city employee colluded with a psychologist and another person in a workers' compensation overbilling scheme that cost the city about $1.6 million.

Compton had sued to recover the overpaid money from Stephen Okonta, the city's former workers' compensation coordinator, and Aline Smith, a marriage and family therapist. Lawyers for the city argued that the pair bilked the city out of $929,431 over eight years.

Another entity implicated in the suit, Oliver-Carr Medical Management, allegedly collected $695,000 from the city without seeing a single patient.

Prosecutors said the company was a shell for a man named Emmanuel Ogbodo, who billed the city under the name of a medical provider called Oliver-Carr Medical Group that had once seen a city employee. Ogbodo, a defendant in the suit, did not contest the city's claim and had a default judgment entered against him.

"I think that the jury got it right, and that justice was done," said Galen Gentry, the attorney who represented the city at trial.

The defense had argued that the case was really about unscrupulous city officials trying to settle personal vendettas.

Okonta's attorney, Michael Lotta, said he was surprised by the verdict because there was "so little evidence" against his client.

According to the city's attorneys, Okonta plotted separately with Smith and Ogbodo, both of whom he had known for 20 years, to get the city to pay hundreds of phony charges.

The city's lawyers said Smith, who evaluated and treated city employees with workers' compensation claims through her company Westchester Industrial Medical Services, fabricated invoices for services she did not provide.

During the month-long proceedings, attorneys for the city presented dozens of employees, who insisted they had not made the visits in question to Westchester or Oliver-Carr.

Defense attorneys maintained that Okonta and Smith were targeted because they failed to get rid of an employee, Patricia Glass, who had filed a workers' comp claim and separately involved the city in several embarrassing and costly legal actions stemming from a sexual harassment complaint in 2002. Smith evaluated Glass in 2008 to see if she was fit to work and found that she was.

"There's a pervasive attitude among the city and employees, of fear and retaliation," said Lotta, who had also represented Glass.

The defense also maintained that negligence and carelessness of senior city officials, including former City Manager Charles Evans, who served as risk manager during the period when some of the overbilling took place, were to blame for any mismanagement. Lotta accused the city of not having concrete policies and procedures regarding workers' compensation and faulted the city for not using an outside company to review all medical bills.

Evans was fired the night after the trial opened. Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin denied that the dismissal was related to the lawsuit

Gentry, the city's lawyer, said the focus on Evans and testimony about turmoil at City Hall were part of the defense's strategy to divert attention from the real problems.

"It was designed to hurt people's feelings, and it has nothing to do with the case," Gentry said. "The case is about money. It's not about a vendetta."

Juror Francisco Gonzalez said the panel had a hard time reaching the verdict. He said jurors believed that there had been fraud but that senior city officials should have shared the blame.

"All of us felt that the city failed to do their job," Gonzalez said. "It's been proven that everyone above Okonta failed to do their job. Unfortunately, the people who were on trial were Dr. Smith and Mr. Okonta."

The city is expected to recover more than three times the amount of the false billings.

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