Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Bucks County's district attorney has dropped homicide and other felony charges against a 37-year-old Falls man accused of fatally injuring another inmate at the county prison.
Instead, Christopher Williams will face a misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter charge in the Oct. 12 death of Donald Rush, 57, of Chalfont. The district attorney also dropped charges of aggravated assault and recklessly endangering another person.
At a brief court appearance on Tuesday, Williams waived his right to a preliminary hearing on the manslaughter charge as well as charges of simple assault and misdemeanor witness intimidation, the latter of which was reduced from a felony.
District Judge Mark Douple set Williams’ bail on the amended charges at $99,000 cash. He remains incarcerated at Montgomery County prison where he was transferred following Rush’s death.
County prosecutor Kristi Hoover said involuntary manslaughter still falls under the general homicide charge that Williams initially faced. She added there was nothing about Rush's treatment at the prison infirmary that influenced the decision to reduce most charges.
Defense attorney Niels Eriksen Jr. was pleased the homicide charge and other felonies were dropped against his client, adding that he believed that finding intent or malice, as would be required for a homicide conviction, would have been “next to impossible.”
“It's pretty evident that this was an argument, resulting in a slap by my client that resulted in the accidental death of Mr. Rush, through a series of intervening acts of negligence,” said Eriksen, adding he believed the case against Williams was "clearly not homicide."
He declined to elaborate about what acts of "negligence" allegedly occurred.
The Montgomery County coroner’s office determined Rush’s death from a closed head injury was a homicide.
An autopsy found that Rush suffered a brain injury as a result of a blow to the head that led to a brain bleed, according to court documents. The forensic pathologist noted a “padded blunt impact to the head” consistent with an open hand strike to the head, court documents said.
Rush had been incarcerated at the county prison in Doylestown Township since September after he pleaded guilty to felony drug delivery and related charges in Bucks County Court. He was sentenced to three to six months in prison.
Bucks County detectives who investigated the death allege Williams struck Rush in the face on Oct. 11 after Rush interrupted Williams’ nap, according to court documents. He then warned Rush and two other witnesses about reporting the incident to correction officers.
Six hours after he was slapped in the face, Rush collapsed outside his cell in the “E” module at the Bucks County prison. He was rushed to Abington Memorial Hospital where he was put on life support. He was pronounced dead later that day, Oct. 12.
Authorities say Rush had entered a cell shortly before 7 p.m. the night before to talk to another inmate. And while they were speaking, a sleeping Williams — the man’s cellmate — woke up and told Rush to leave because he was trying to sleep. Rush left the cell a minute later, authorities said.
Shortly after 7 p.m. Rush entered a neighboring cell to get a phone number from a different inmate, the affidavit alleges.
While Rush was inside that cell, Williams entered and started yelling at him for coming into his cell and waking him up, the affidavit alleges. Rush was seated on the lower bunk in the cell and Williams was standing in front of him when he struck Rush on the left side of his head, knocking off Rush’s glasses and causing his mouth to bleed, court documents said.
After striking Rush, authorities alleged that Williams refused to let him leave the cell until he promised not to report the assault, authorities said. Rush eventually agreed not to report it.
After Rush left the cell, he returned to his cell and rinsed out his mouth with water and then he told the corrections officers he injured his mouth after accidentally hitting his face on his cell door, the affidavit alleges.
Court documents state Rush was allowed to go to the prison dispensary for treatment, but they do not describe what type of treatment Rush received.
Following the assault, Williams also told the inmate who witnessed it and his cellmate not to say anything about it to corrections officers, the affidavit said.
Williams was initially incarcerated for a probation violation. He pleaded guilty last year to receiving stolen property stemming from a 2013 arrest in Falls, according to court records.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: email@example.com; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia
Posted: Friday, December 4, 2015
A judge has upheld witness-intimidation charges against Claire Risoldi, the socially prominent, politically connected Bucks County woman accused of trying to persuade a jewelry appraiser to authenticate 30-year-old appraisals that are part of a $20 million insurance fraud case.
In his Dec. 1 opinion, Judge Thomas Gavin agreed that the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office presented sufficient information at a preliminary hearing last month to hold Risoldi, 68, on charges of witness intimidation and obstruction administration of law. Gavin, of Chester County, is overseeing the Risoldi trial, scheduled for February, after all Bucks County judges recused themselves due to possible conflicts of interest.
While he held Risoldi for trial on the charges, Gavin denied the AG’s request to revoke her bail.
The judge also dismissed a conspiracy charge against Risoldi, stating that Risoldi directing her private investigator Mark Goldman to speak to retired appraiser Edward Foris does not establish a “conspiratorial relationship between them, let alone an agreement to commit a criminal offense,” according to his opinion.
|Claire Risoldi (L) Mark Goldman|
For a second time, Gavin also dismissed all charges — including those related to the jewelry-appraisal case — against Goldman, 55, of Wayne. The AG’s office had refiled the original criminal charges in the $20 million insurance fraud case against Goldman after the first dismissal.
“The fact that Goldman in his capacity as an investigator questioned a witness at the behest of his client … and reported the results of the interview does not make him a member of a criminal enterprise or a conspirator or inculpate him in the other crimes for which Claire and the other defendants were originally bound over,” Gavin wrote in his opinion.
The Attorney General's Office had accused Goldman and Risoldi of attempting to persuade Foris to authenticate his signature on 34 jewelry appraisals from 1983 after they and four others were charged with defrauding insurer AIG in claims related to an October 2013 fire at the family’s Buckingham estate, Clairemont. The appraisals are part of the state’s evidence in the insurance fraud case.
The documents, as well as others including blank, but signed, appraisal forms and ones with signature lines cut off, were seized in November 2014 as part of the AG’s criminal investigation.
Foris testified at a preliminary hearing last month that Goldman and Risoldi each requested him to review the typewritten appraisals that he purportedly signed for Risoldi. But after inspecting them, Foris testified that he never prepared or signed the appraisals.
He also testified that he never prepared or signed any jewelry appraisals for Risoldi or her first husband, Carl P. Risoldi. The AG’s office claims a handwriting expert determined the signatures on the appraisals were photocopies using several signature sources.
He claimed that after Goldman’s visit, Claire contacted him — first by phone, then later sending gifts of flowers and a fruit basket before showing up at his house asking him to admit that he signed the appraisals. He refused.
Through their attorneys, Risoldi and family members who are defendants in the fraud case have steadfastly denied any wrongdoing in connection with the insurance claims.
In addition to the charges involving the Foris’ appraisals, Claire Risoldi faces 21 criminal counts, including theft by deception, corrupt organizations, false insurance claims, receiving stolen property, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity and forgery in connection with the insurance fraud case. Also charged in the insurance fraud case are Claire’s son, Carl A. Risoldi, 44; Carl's wife, Sheila, 44, both of Buckingham, and daughter Carla V. Risoldi, 49, of Solebury. They face felonies that include corrupt organizations and insurance fraud.
Also charged in the fraud case is fabric vendor Richard Holston, 51, of Medford Lakes, New Jersey, who is accused of insurance fraud, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and perjury.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia
Posted: Thursday, November 26, 2015
Bristol Township Council could resurrect a proposal for a six-month moratorium on new houses for recovering substance abusers, though the ban could result in a lawsuit.
Before a crowd of more than 100 people, including individuals in the recovery community, councilwoman Amber Longhitano again suggested to council a proposed ban so officials can work on implementing zoning changes that would create a “balance” in the community.
Longhitano, who recently proposed a moratorium that council voted down, believes the township is oversaturated with recovery homes, which are located in residential neighborhoods mostly in the Levittown area. The most recent numbers show at least 93 recovery homes are operating in the township, up from 72 in September, according to Longhitano.
“We need to put it (the moratorium) in play to create a solution to the problem,” she said, adding that the township needs to look at its zoning ordinances in relation to distance and density requirements to protect the township from becoming “institutionalized.”
She added she had concerns that some individuals who own and operate recovery houses have no experience with individuals with substance abuse problems and their issues. Longhitano also suggested the township create a voluntary certificate of excellence program where recovery home operators would agree to annual inspections to “get rid of rouge homes.”
In recent weeks residents have appeared at Bristol Township Council meetings to complain about the proliferation of recovery homes expressing concerns including the impact on neighborhood property values and public safety.
Many expressed those same concerns Wednesday night.
One man, who said he lives across the street from a recovery house, told the audience he has no problem with people getting sober. But that he is tired of residents milling around outside the homes in the early morning yelling at people on the phone.
“That is not sober living,” he said.
Another man claimed recovery homes are taking money from those who live there, but not screening them. He also accused the township of failing to inspect the homes.
The man claimed to know of homes with as many as 15 residents, far above occupancy limits. He also claimed one home had six women living in a basement with only one exit.
“Why can’t that be regulated,” said the man, who asked not to be identified.
Recovery home residents and supporters were in the audience Wednesday night, but none spoke.
Some recovery houses are operated by former addicts who are looking to serve others who are attempting to lead clean and sober lives. It’s unclear how many recovery houses are located in Bucks County.
The Bucks County Recovery House Association, a grassroots owner group that has undertaken voluntary self-regulation, operates roughly 58 homes in Bensalem, Bristol, Bristol Township, Falls and Middletown. Those RHA recovery houses are the ones the Bucks County Probation Office currently sends those recently released from jail.
About 30 percent of the recovery homes operating in Bristol Township are Recovery House Association members, according to Bristol Township Police Lt. Ralph Johnson.
Municipal and state officials have expressed frustration with the increase in the number of recovery homes, which operate under federal guidelines according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and The Fair Housing program and face virtually no regulations on how the homes should operate.
Under the Fair Housing Act, recovery homes are not considered businesses, something that many in the audience found outrageous.
“We are frustrated too. We can’t compromise federal law,” said state Rep. Frank Farry, R-142, “We’re handcuffed as much as you are.”
The Bucks County Recovery House Task Force is currently working on a report it anticipates releasing next year which likely will recommend creating a voluntary certification program.
Local officials can enforce local zoning and building code requirements only, but in Bristol Township there are only two building inspectors serving the entire community, officials said.
In Bristol Township, like Bensalem, homeowners must obtain occupancy permits before moving into a property. It’s unclear if those inspections are required with rental properties when tenants move in.
But Councilman Joseph Glasson, who voted against the moratorium, said his decision was based on the township solicitor’s advice. He urged individuals to file complaints with the licenses and inspection department if they suspect homes are violating township ordinances.
“With all due respect, I understand every position all of you have,” he said. “I’m trying to do the best decision making I can for the 52,000 residents of Bristol Township.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Steve Santarsiero, D-31, though, advised the council to move forward with a moratorium despite the lawsuit risk.
“I would take that risk,” he said. “This has gotten to such a critical point, you have to do something to stop the bleeding.”
But Council President Craig Bowen had reservations.
“We can’t afford a risk,“ he said. “We’re broke in this township.”
“What does it cost us if we don’t do it,” shouted an audience member.
Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, agreed. The state lawmaker is working on legislation that would give the state oversight of recovery houses.
“A court would say our township offers reasonable accommodations,” she said. “It’s your job to take a risk. Look at how many people came out here tonight.”
While residents expressed concern about increased criminal activity near the recovery houses, Johnson said that crime statistics don’t show it.
Among the 112 overdose calls that required police response, only 14 involved recovery houses, he said. Among recovery houses, police responded to an average of two calls a year, compared with 1.6 calls with the rest of the township.
Statistics also show that police responded to more complaints at many of the homes before they were turned into recovery houses, Johnson said.
Another meeting is planned for late January including state, federal lawmakers, town watch and recovery community members along with local municipal officials.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: email@example.com; Twitter: @jociavaglia
Posted: Friday, November 20, 2015
The question before a judge in the $20 million insurance fraud case against the politically connected Risoldi family Friday wasn’t only who signed 34 jewelry appraisals, but when did two defendants visit the retired appraiser to ask him to authenticate them?
The Pennsylvania Attorney General contended Mark Goldman, a private investigator, and client Claire Risoldi each visited Edward Foris after they and four others were charged with defrauding insurer AIG for claims related to an October 2013 fire at the family’s Buckingham estate, Clairemont.
|Claire Risoldi (L) Mark Goldman|
Defense attorneys countered that a flower shop receipt and Goldman’s dated notes are proof the meetings occurred before the state unsealed its criminal indictment in late January.
The date difference is potentially significant for Risoldi, 67, of Buckingham, since contact with Foris could put her in violation of her bail conditions in the fraud case, prosecutor David Augenbraun said.
Following a three-hour preliminary hearing in Doylestown, Chester County Judge Thomas Gavin said he would make a decision no later than Tuesday on whether to hold Risoldi and 55-year-old Goldman, of Wayne, for trial on the new charges. Gavin is overseeing the Risoldi trial in Bucks County — scheduled for February — because all the Bucks County judges have recused themselves due to possible conflicts of interest.
Risoldi and Goldman are charged with witness intimidation, conspiracy and obstruction of administration of law for allegedly attempting to persuade Foris, 78, to verify his signature on 1983 jewelry appraisals that are part of the state’s evidence in the insurance fraud case. The documents, as well as others including blank, but signed, appraisal forms and ones with signature lines cut off were seized in November 2014 as part of the AG’s criminal investigation. Evidence presented in a preliminary hearing earlier this year in the fraud case found the appraisals had been altered before they were submitted in the 1984 insurance claim, which was ultimately paid.
On Friday, Foris testified that sometime between January 2015 and May 2015, Goldman asked if he would review the typewritten jewelry appraisals that Foris purportedly made and signed for Claire Risoldi. Foris said Friday that he agreed to look at them, but after inspecting them, he told Goldman he didn't prepare or sign them.
His appraisals were always handwritten, Foris testified, and he never signed blank or typewritten appraisals. Also, while the signatures resembled his, he said they appeared to be photocopied.
Foris told the court he met Claire Risoldi once, but her parents were regular customers at an auction business where Foris previously worked. He couldn't recall if he did jewelry appraisals for Claire’s parents, but he said he never did appraisals for her or her late husband, Carl P. Risoldi.
A day or two after Goldman’s visit, Foris said he received flowers and a fruit basket with cards stating Claire Risoldi had sent the gifts. Around the same time, he said he got a call from a woman identifying herself as Claire Risoldi and asking about the jewelry appraisals. Foris testified Friday that at a later date, a woman he described as having dark hair, being heavily made-up, wearing big sunglasses and speaking with a “rough” and “unmistakable” voice appeared outside his home and asked him to “help her out.”
“She was sort of begging me to admit I signed those (appraisals),” Foris said, adding the woman told him, “ ‘You gotta' help me out here. They’re looking to put me in jail.’ ”
Foris said he refused, then asked her to leave him alone before closing the door on her.
Under questioning by Risoldi’s attorney, Jack McMahon, Foris said no one asked him to lie about the appraisals and he didn't feel compelled to call police after the visits. Foris also couldn't positively identify Goldman or Claire Risoldi as the people with whom he spoke.
But when McMahon tried to get Foris to say the visits occurred in December 2014, he refused, saying: “That is a lie.”
McMahon also presented part of a 1984 insurance claim report, where a representative visited the Fairless Hills Auction and claimed he spoke to a man identified as Edward Foris who reviewed the Risoldi’s 1983 jewelry schedule and affirmed he saw and appraised each item. “That is a blatant lie,” Foris countered.
McMahon also showed how several signatures on the alleged forged appraisals had slight variations.
“It may be my signature, but I didn’t sign them,” Foris said.
“Then how did your signature get on there?” McMahon said.
“Heaven knows,” Foris replied.
Augenbraun said a handwriting expert determined the appraisal signatures were photocopies using several source signatures.
Through their attorneys, Claire Risoldi and family members who are defendants in the fraud case, have steadfastly denied any wrongdoing in connection with the insurance claims.
There was no new testimony Friday in the state's attempt to reinstate the original charges against Goldman in the AIG fraud case. Gavin dismissed those charges earlier this year after determining he was improperly charged, but the state refiled them.
In addition to the witness intimidation, conspiracy and obstruction charges involving the appraisals, Claire Risoldi faces 21 criminal counts, including theft by deception, corrupt organizations, false insurance claims, receiving stolen property, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity and forgery in connection with the insurance fraud case. Also charged in the insurance fraud case are Claire’s son, Carl A. Risoldi, 44; Carl's wife, Sheila, 44, both of Buckingham, and daughter Carla V. Risoldi, 49, of Solebury. They face felonies that include corrupt organizations and insurance fraud. Also charged in the fraud case is fabric vendor Richard Holston, 51, of Medford Lakes, New Jersey, who is accused of insurance fraud, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and perjury.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jociavaglia
Posted: Thursday, November 19, 2015
Sometimes, it seems the only person a veteran returning from overseas will trust is another veteran.
Life in a foreign combat zone can change a person in ways that people who have never experienced it can’t understand, veterans say. And sometimes, the battlefield follows them home.
“You don’t come back mentally stronger than when you left,” said Mike, 31, who spent 11 months fighting in Afghanistan. “You’re in a high stressful environment all the time. It’s not like you’re working in the office, you have a bad day and go home.”
When Mike, who didn't want his last name used, returned to Bucks County six years ago, he believed he was leaving the war behind. Things would get better. The nightmares would stop. The hearing trouble would fade. Everything would go back to the way it was before his tour of duty.
|Carolyn Debuque (L)|
But time didn’t change his life for the better, he said. His second driving under the influence charge did.
The January arrest led Mike to a special second-chance program for combat-traumatized veterans facing minor criminal charges. Mike said he's on track to complete the requirements imposed by Bucks County Veterans Court, and if all goes well, his arrest record will be expunged.
Since 2012, the county's veterans court has operated largely under the radar. But Thursday night, for the first time, participants who completed the Bucks County Veterans Treatment Program will be recognized in a private ceremony at the Bucks County Justice Center in Doylestown.
Eleven of the 12 veterans who have been enrolled in the program have completed it and another 11 other veterans are now enrolled, according to Carolyn Debuque, who volunteers as the coordinator of those who volunteer as veterans court mentors. The one washout was sent back to the regular county court system.
Bucks and Montgomery counties — home to 40,571 and 50,355 military veterans, respectively, as of 2013 — are among at least 19 Pennsylvania counties that have established veterans courts. The programs pair military veterans accused of misdemeanor crimes with other veterans who act as mentors. To be considered for veterans court, a participant must have a diagnosis of a mental health condition, traumatic brain injury or a substance abuse problem directly related to combat service.
Veterans court runs similarly to the county’s longstanding trial diversion program known as accelerated rehabilitative disposition for nonviolent first-time offenders. Each month, a small handful of new participants appear before Bucks County Judge Wallace Bateman Jr. Most defendants served in Afghanistan or Iraq, but a few fought in Vietnam, officials said.
The probationary program lasts six months. If participants complete the requirements — which can include community service, restitution and counseling — and aren't arrested during that time, their criminal charges are reduced or expunged after another six months of probation or house arrest, depending on the severity of the charges, according to officials.
Bucks County Director of Veteran Affairs Dan Fraley believes Veterans Court helps divert newly returned veterans from making more, and possibly worse, mistakes than those that landed then in vet court.
“Overall, Bucks County has a program that is working quietly,” he added. “I’ve seen some veterans benefit from it.”
At least 360 combat veterans — 90 percent of the 400 who have sought services through the Bucks County Veterans Center in Bristol Township since it opened six years ago — have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, according to Jeff Hoerger, who heads the center. Hoerger said veterans courts are a good tool for connecting such individuals with treatment and services through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Studies have also found such diversion programs are successful in preventing future arrests.
Most recently, researchers from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services tracked 86 veterans diagnosed with PTSD who were involved in jail diversion and trauma recovery programs. They found nearly 90 percent of participants weren't arrested again during the program and that vets who participated experienced “significant” improvement with depression, PTSD and substance abuse as well as emotional well-being and relationships with others.
“When provided programs and services that fostered recovery, veterans improved markedly on all study measures,” according to the study, which appeared in the Community Mental Health Journal earlier this year. “Veterans particularly improved when provided a combination of trauma-specific treatment, peer mentor services, and medication.”
Mike learned about Bucks County’s vet court from a veterans counseling center following his most recent DUI arrest. At the center, he was diagnosed with PTSD and started weekly mental health counseling.
Over the last year, he said he has developed a close relationship with his veteran mentor, a bond he believes will continue after he completes the program.
“With the veterans court, you have a connection already. There is already a trust built there. There is trust there before you meet them,” he said. “I didn’t feel I was meeting with a complete stranger. I didn’t feel like I had to hold anything back.”
Mike said he may join one of the military reserves and is considering signing on as a veterans court mentor. “It’s been fantastic. It’s really helped me understand what I was dealing with,” he said.
Debuque understands the sometimes difficult transition military members can face when they return home from overseas. A master sergeant with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard who has seen combat in Afghanistan and Kuwait, Debuque volunteered as a veterans court mentor in neighboring Lehigh County for two years.
The DA’s office liked Debuque's work so much that Debuque, who is a paid juvenile probation employee, was asked to coordinate the mentors for the Bucks veterans court. Under her guidance, the number of mentors has increased to 15 — a number she hopes to grow. And all branches of the military are represented.
“I live by the motto, 'Don’t leave anyone behind,'” she said. “What I get out of it is just for them to know there is someone there who understands and gets it. We’re not going to judge anything. We’re just one of their brothers in arms to help them on the other end.”
Retired Lt. Col. Scott Hreso learned about the Bucks County Veterans Court when Debuque tapped him as a mentor earlier this year. The Horsham resident served as a U.S. Marine and a retired fighter pilot with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard in Afghanistan and during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At 56, he was paired with a U.S. Army vet roughly half his age. The day they met six months ago, the two worked out together at a local gym. They did more sweating than talking that day, but a mutual respect developed. The two have since become close friends, Hreso said.
“We speak the same language. I see the confusion on their face, just like I had when I was young and in the Marine Corps,” he explained. “When you talk to regular people, you have to explain to the 'nth' degree what you’ve experienced. When you’re in the same conflict, it only takes a few words.”
Over the months they’ve worked together, Hreso, a single father of four, said he has seen a new sense of maturity and responsibility from the vet he's mentoring.
“He’s shifted back into that, he’s back in the United States (and) this is how this civilized society works,” he added. “I saw him fit back into society and realized he is an American in the United States again and he is going to comply with what we do here.”
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: email@example.com; Twitter: @jociavaglia
Posted: Wednesday, November 18, 2015
A suspended Bucks County doctor accused of operating a cash-only pill mill that netted nearly $2 million and led to the death of a patient is now accused of collecting $4 million in insurance reimbursements for treating patients with a device made out of a used propane tank.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office on Wednesday unsealed its latest indictment against Dr. William J. O’Brien III, 50.
O'Brien, whose residence is listed as Bristol Township and Philadelphia, is in federal prison without bail, pending trial on the earlier drug charges. The Pennsylvania Medical Board has suspended his medical license.
The indictment accuses him of conspiring to defraud the Food and Drug Administration and conspiracy to commit health insurance fraud.
Federal authorities allege O’Brien made misrepresentations to the FDA to obtain the agency’s clearance for his 10-person hyperbaric chamber, which he marketed under the name Hyperox 101.
A hyperbaric chamber is a medical device that lets patients breathe 100 percent pure oxygen for a prolonged period in a pressurized environment. In recent years, the treatment has seen renewed interest, especially for chronic wound care, one of its FDA-approved uses. The treatment appears to speed the healing process by delivering more oxygen to injured areas.
|Dr. William O'Brien III|
Under FDA requirements, a hyperbaric chamber that treats patients must be constructed using a certain kind of steel and certified as a pressure vessel for human occupancy, according to the federal government. O'Brien's Hyperox model was made from pieces of a used propane tank that were welded together, the indictment alleges. As a result of its “substandard” construction, the device didn't provide patients with therapeutic benefits and put them at potential risk, the indictment said.
The federal government charges that O’Brien knew about the device’s deficiencies, but gained FDA approval by submitting false documentation.
He also used the unapproved device to defraud Medicare and other health benefit programs out of more than $4 million between March 2007 and August 2011, the U.S. attorney said. O'Brien allegedly submitted approximately $15 million in claims for what the indictment called “medically unnecessary and potentially unsafe” treatments.
The new charges come following an FBI raid of O’Brien’s hyperbaric oxygen business in Middletown in September 2011. There, federal agents seized files at the office and three other practices that were run by O’Brien. They also seized the $900,000 hyperbaric chamber that O’Brien claimed he invented and patented.
In a phone interview the day after the raid, O’Brien said the search warrants involved only records and items connected with Hyper-Ox and not his then-medical and physical therapy practices. He has since been removed from those practices.
“My opinion is, for some reason, there is a perception that the machine is dangerous,” O’Brien said in the 2011 interview.
A doctor of osteopathic medicine, O'Brien was charged in July 2015 with operating a “pill mill” from his medical offices.
O’Brien — who once ran a string of family practices in Bucks, Lehigh and Philadelphia counties — faces 95 additional counts of distribution of controlled substances, specifically oxycodone, methadone and amphetamines, according to federal authorities.
O’Brien and his then-wife, Elizabeth Hibbs, 54, also allegedly diverted assets from O’Brien’s company, WJO Inc., to their personal accounts and other accounts they controlled. They also allegedly concealed other assets and knowingly made a false statement under oath during bankruptcy proceedings.
O’Brien allegedly developed a scheme in which he recruited so-called “patients” who would typically pay him $200 cash in exchange for prescriptions for controlled substances. Once the prescriptions were filled, the “patients” handed over the drugs to eight other defendants who were charged in the earlier indictment and who then sold them to drug dealers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
The feds allege O’Brien’s illegal prescription drug business led to the 2013 death of an unidentified patient at his former Bristol Township practice. O’Brien allegedly prescribed the patient Flexeril, a muscle relaxant, along with the opiate painkillers oxycodone and methadone, a combination that officials said led to his death.
If convicted of all the drug charges, O’Brien faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life behind bars.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jociavaglia
Thursday, November 5, 2015
Some school cafeteria health inspection reports in Bucks and eastern Montgomery counties are less than appetizing
Posted: Sunday, October 18, 2015
Bucks County health inspectors removed egg salad, tuna salad and other items from a salad bar at Pennsbury West High School because the items weren't chilled to a safe temperature to prevent bacteria growth.Insects and rodents were noted at Pennsbury West and in 25 other school food service areas -- a repeat violation for some schools.
Montgomery County inspectors found meatballs warmed to only 100 degrees, 40 degrees below a safe holding temperature, at Hatboro-Horsham High School.
Flies were breeding in dirty wet linens in a student-run kitchen at a bakery open to the public at the Bucks County Technical High School in Bristol Township, inspectors found.
Kitchen workers at Souderton Area High School in Franconia bagged sandwiches barehanded and handled dirty dishes — and then clean ones — without washing their hands, according to a January health inspection.
Soap, towels or hot water were missing at staff hand-washing stations in five area schools, health inspectors reported.
This is a sampling of the violations that health inspectors from Bucks and Montgomery counties found in 152 of the 179 school kitchens, cafeterias and school concession stands they inspected between August 2013 and August 2015, according to a Calkins Media analysis of inspection reports filed by the county health departments. Schools in the National School Lunch Program, which include most in the area, are inspected twice a year under federal guidelines.
At 114 school facilities, inspectors reported critical violations, which are described as those presenting a high risk of spreading potentially dangerous foodborne illnesses. Improper food preparation practices introduce pathogens into food. Poor holding temperatures allow bacteria to grow. Under-cooking fails to kill all contaminates. Certain strains of E. coli, salmonella and other bacteria that can cause foodborne illness can live in surfaces for up to two hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The public school districts and charter, private and parochial schools with violations that are mentioned in this story were contacted for response about the health department inspections. The Bucks and Montgomery school administrators who responded didn't dispute the violations. Some described the inspection reports as learning tools. Others emphasized that most citations didn’t involve public health risks or were conditions that were corrected immediately. And some attributed violations to outdated or faulty kitchen equipment and facilities.
Among Bucks County schools, the highest number of critical violations occurred in the School Lane Charter School in Bensalem and Bristol Township’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Middle School.
School Lane, which has three kitchens at its two locations, had nine inspections over two years, reporting critical violations in seven of those inspections.
Inspectors earlier this year reported seeing a cafeteria worker chop and serve celery “without first washing the celery.” Last year, inspectors saw one cafeteria worker picking up items off the floor with the same gloves that were used for handling food. Another worker was seen talking on a cellphone in the kitchen without removing gloves that were used to handle food. Mouse droppings were found in a storage room during inspections in 2013 and 2014.
School Lane replaced its food service vendor mid-year in 2014 after a series of violation-heavy health inspection reports, food service director Andrew Ruhl said. The current food service vendor, Nutrition Inc., upgraded the service line in the middle school cafeteria adding food warming trays, which has helped with maintaining holding temperatures, he said.
But Ruhl said the elementary school kitchen, where hot food is prepared for its three schools, struggles with mostly old equipment. Cold foods are prepared in the middle school kitchen, then transferred to the elementary school within the same building. Lunches also are prepared at the middle school and delivered to the high school until that building has been renovated, Ruhl said.
FDR Middle was inspected five times between March 2013 and March 2015 and 20 critical violations were reported.
Inspectors noted the presence of ants and roaches, which could freely enter the school since "several windows in the cafeteria were open without screens," on March 11, 2015, and Sept. 17, 2014. A March 19, 2014, inspection report also warned of “potentially hazardous foods, including tuna, egg and chicken, observed maintaining poor product temperatures at the salad bar.”
The school building is more than 70 years old and “requires a lot of attention,” acting Superintendent Melanie Gehrens said. Over the last two years, the school has had many improvements – “as the district budget allowed” – including roof repairs over the cafeteria and kitchen area and new hot water tanks, she said.
After the most recent inspection in September, FDR had only one violation that was immediately corrected, according to Gehrens. The violation — a critical one — involved a dishwasher that was not reaching hot enough temperatures to properly sanitize dishes. The correction requires employees to use a different procedure and machine, according to the inspection report.
Bristol Township uses an in-house Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program that requires written daily cleaning schedules and temperature readings of all refrigerated units, hot holding units and cooking temperatures, Gehrens said.
“We are happy to say that many of our schools recently inspected received no violations at all since the start of the new school year,” she said, adding, “We are not happy with even one violation and continually strive for perfection.”
Not all schools or school districts had multiple violations, however. At least 18 in Bucks and Montgomery counties had few or no reported violations over the two years.
Central Bucks High East High School was among them. It has had only two health code violations in two years, both occurring this year. One involved chicken fried rice that was returned to a food warmer before serving the next lunch period, which isn't appropriate, and a dishwasher running too cold in the wash cycle.
Susan Burkhard, whose daughter is a CB East senior and son is a chef, was pleased with the results.
“I don’t think they are anything major,” Burkhard said. “I think that would be a common problem in any food establishment except for the dishwasher."
The Pennridge School District had only one school with a violation in 2013. Keith Valley Middle School in Horsham was one of six eastern Montgomery County schools with four or fewer violations over the two years. Keith Valley had two violations, including a piece of clothing found in a food storage room.
"I would hate to have violations," Keith Valley cafeteria manager Dolores Connelly said. "I'd be worried about kids getting sick."
The number and types of health code violations at area schools may seem shocking, but health department officials in Bucks and Montgomery counties said most school food facilities are generally well run and they couldn't recall any cases of food poisoning from school-prepared foods.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks school cafeterias behind commercial restaurants and homes as a source of foodborne illnesses.
Schools were a source of 28 confirmed or suspected food poisoning outbreaks in Pennsylvania between 1998 and 2013, according to the CDC. There were 33 confirmed or suspected outbreaks reported among sit-down restaurants between 2009 and 2013 alone. However, reporting to the CDC is voluntary and the reports don't distinguish between school-prepared food and other sources, including outside vendors.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Friday announced a new food safety campaign aimed at children and parents.
Children are among the most vulnerable to food poisoning because their immune systems are still developing, USDA Deputy Under Secretary Alfred Almanza said, so caregivers need to take extra precautions. USDA advertisements will focus on four concepts aimed at preventing foodborne illness: cleanliness; separating raw meats from other foods; cooking food to safe temperatures; and keep food chilled to safe temperatures. Almanza encouraged parents to download the new USDA Foodkeeper application for Android and iPhone devices to help them improve food safety.
Given their size, schools present the potential for large-scale outbreaks, according to the CDC. That’s why the federal government demands a minimum of two health inspections annually at school participating in the free and reduced lunch program and mandatory annual food safety training for school food service employees and managers.
And while the presence of bugs or rodents may be disturbing, officials said it isn't considered a public health threat at the same level as poor hygiene among cafeteria workers, food kept at improper temperatures, under-cooked meat and cross-contamination, where raw animal products that can harbor dangerous bacteria taint other food items, such as produce.
Insects and rodent feces are “unavoidably” present in foods without presenting a health hazard, according to microbiologist Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. He added the federal Food and Drug Administration has established acceptable levels of both items in uncooked items, including flour and sugar.
"If they are finding it (bugs or feces) on the (cooked) food, that is a concern,” Doyle added. “It’s not pleasant to find rodent pellets in your flour, but if you cook it -- that is what cooking is for -- to kill the harmful bacteria.”
Bensalem resident Dolores Averona said she was happy to learn her daughter's school, Russell C. Struble Elementary, has had no critical health code violations in more than a year, but she wasn't pleased to hear that rodent activity in a storage room was among Struble's six non-critical violations.
“In my mind it’s unacceptable," she said. "We’re sending our children to a school, yes to be educated, but to partake in lunch under the impression they’re being fed a meal that is going to be just as good as something I’d serve at home.”
Nicole Giovetsis was similarly disturbed to hear her daughter’s school -- Bensalem's Samuel Faust Elementary -- had nine violations, four critical, since last year.
“It’s surprising that the parents don’t know,” she said. “I don’t even know how to react. You’d think that they would be extra careful because they’re dealing with children.”
Bensalem Superintendent Samuel Lee didn't dispute the county inspection reports. The district's cafeterias make up one the largest food service operations in the county and the high school kitchen was only recently renovated to meet the standards for food preparation, Lee said.
“Our schools serve 2,700 lunches per day, along with 800 breakfasts and additional a la carte items," Lee said. "Thousands of pounds of (trash) are moved daily. Safety, cleanliness and product quality at the nine schools is our number one priority."
Food scientists say even a significant number of less dangerous, violations of so-called good retail practices and repeat violations may signal trouble.
“That, to me, says who is managing this place?” said Donald Schaffner, a food microbiologist with the Institute of Food Technologists who teaches food science at New Jersey's Rutgers University. “What is the manager doing, spending time on? They should be spending their time preventing these little things.”
Dr. Lydia Johnson, director of the Bureau of Food Safety and laboratories for the Pennsylvania Health Department, agreed a pattern of repeat violations is a red flag for state inspectors who handle schools in areas without local health departments.
“If they see a lot of violations, they’re obviously having problems with managerial control and focusing on food safety,” Johnson said. “They’re not getting the message this is a violation and it has impact on school safety.”
Some food scientists believe sanitation and food preparation will become more labor-intensive for kitchen staffs as schools move to replace prepackaged and heat-and-serve foods with more fruits, vegetables and fresh-cooked items to meet healthier federal nutrition guidelines.
No research exists correlating kitchen staff numbers with inspection report outcomes, but a “(made) from scratch” kitchen will generally require more staff to produce quality, safe food, said Kevin Roberts, director of the Center of Excellent for Food Safety Research in Child Nutrition at Kansas State University.
“If a school moves to more scratch cooking, there will be greater challenges associated with protecting the food that is served,” Roberts added. “The more process you implement within the system, the greater the risk.”
Bucks tech school cafeteria supervisor Anthony Mazzocchi agreed that healthier menus mean more prep time and cleanup work for his staff of 10 part-time employees and two full-time employees, who are responsible for preparing food for 550 students daily.
Before one recent lunch service, Mazzocchi and his cafeteria manager washed, quartered and seasoned 200 pounds of red bliss potatoes as a side dish, instead of serving frozen pre-cut french fries. “My hands are still sore,” Mazzocchi joked.
Tech school director Leon Poeske said the school had about 12 violations a year in its four kitchens, which breaks down to less than a handful each year. The students' "learning" kitchens serve about 1,000 people a month in the school restaurant. It and the bakery, which are open to the public, typically have more violations in the fall inspections than they do in the spring, because of the student learning curve, he said.
At Abington Friends, insects or rodent droppings were noted in three of four inspections.
“This is clearly an important issue that deserves attention and one that we take very seriously,” said Richard Nourie, head of the Friends school, which accumulated 32 violations, including six critical ones, over two years. The private Quaker grade school uses an outside food vendor and recently made “significant investments” in its kitchen areas to address items that were brought to its attention, Nourie added in a statement.