Rubio: Feds should consider Palm Beach County sober home fixes

Federal officials raid a sober home at 1501 N. Federal Hwy., Lake Worth, on Dec. 21, 2016. Officials charged owner Kenny Chatman and five others with health-care fraud in an ongoing crackdown on sober homes in Palm Beach County. Chatman has been the subject of Palm Beach Post investigative stories detailing fraud in the sober home industry. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)

Local prosecutors hoped that state regulators would consider a Palm Beach County grand jury’s recommendations on fixing the crime-plagued sober home industry.

Now, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, wants the federal government to see whether the grand jury report should change laws across the country.

Rubio on Thursday asked the comptroller general of the United States to assess whether the Palm Beach County recommendations should have a role in the Government Accountability Office’s review of federal and state oversight of sober homes.

Rubio wrote:

“Abuse and fraud in the addiction treatment industry has exploded in concurrence with the opioid epidemic that has swept our nation. Treatment services are crucial for getting those suffering from substance use disorder on the path to recovery. The Palm Beach Grand Jury report provides valuable insight to one of the states hit hardest by this epidemic, and offers ideas on how states can confront the challenges of fraud and abuse in the addiction treatment industry.”


The grand jury convened at the request of State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a Palm Beach County Democrat preparing to start his second term. The report, released Dec. 12, outlined 15 changes that would:

  • Crack down on deceptive marketing aimed at vulnerable people
  • Require effective standards for sober homes
  • Help state regulators move quickly and effectively
  • Improve laws against patient brokering and other kickback schemes
  • Rebalance law enforcement and patient privacy laws to help criminal investigations

The report follows a year of stories in The Palm Beach Post detailing fraud in the $1 billion industry, which featured closeup looks at several operators, including Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman, who was arrested Wednesday with his wife and four others in a federal crackdown.

Rubio’s Thursday letter is a follow-up to a request he made in June with U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to evaluate sober homes and their regulations. They said then that “The ongoing opioid epidemic has fueled a high demand for substance abuse services, and it is critical that individuals receive the care they need, and that facilities purporting to help individuals with substance use disorders are actually doing so.”

The Palm Beach Post found that Palm Beach County’s opioid problem has enormous costs. Last year 216 people died in the county of heroin-related overdoses. In a story on what could be done, The Post noted that Rubio missed a critical vote on the most important addiction bill in decades.

In comments to The Post made Friday, Rubio said that “Heroin and opioid addiction is a disease, and when you hear about some sober living homes and recovery providers mistreating and abusing the people they are supposed to be helping, it’s heartbreaking. I believe more must be done to make sure these facilities are acting in good faith and not defrauding taxpayers by taking advantage of people who are desperately seeking help in their fight against the disease of addiction.”

Rubio said the Government Accounting Office study could suggest ways regulations would protect communities and recovering addicts without overly complicating the government’s role.

Birds at the Ballpark: Astros, Nationals could have feathered company at new spring training home

If the busy skies over Palm Beach County’s latest public construction project are any indication, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals could have some feathered company at their new spring training home in West Palm Beach.

Click the video and see for yourself: Birds — hundreds of them — have been flying over the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, roosting on newly-erected light towers, on the roof of clubhouse buildings and on batting cage overhangs, along with the upper reaches of palm trees around the site.


It’s too early to determine whether the birds will stick around when the Astros and Nationals start playing spring training games in February. But one bird expert who viewed video clips that were shot by The Palm Beach Post on Dec. 16, 2016 thinks they could be permanent season-ticket holders at the $144 million complex.

The ballpark, just south of 45h Street between Haverhill Road and Military Trail, is just a mile or two from the Palm Beach County landfill on Jog Road north of 45th Street.

Welder has some company from birds circling the Ballpark of the Palm Beach on Dec. 16, 2016
Welder has some company from birds circling the Ballpark of the Palm Beach on Dec. 16, 2016

“I think it will be a common occurance because of the proximity to the landfill,” said Ricardo Zambrano, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Zambrano identified the birds as “fish crows,” scavengers that can be found picking through trash cans at the beach.

“Once the baseball stadium opens, with fans eating French fries and food, I’m sure they will be hanging around more,” he said.

But there’s not much food on the site now, just construction workers.

Why so many birds now?

Birds fly over construction crews at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Dec. 16, 2016.
Birds fly over construction crews at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Dec. 16, 2016.

The 160-acre site used to be a city landfill years ago before it was covered with vegetation and trees such as tall Australian pine.

“I think that the open space that existed prior to the stadium was better bird habitat,” said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club, “but the birds will adjust and become a common fixture at the baseball stadium.”

The teams started clearing the site in November 2015 when the construction started. When the stadium and light towers started to rise in the last few months, the birds discovered new and lofty places to roost.

Another theory: New grass and fresh landscaping on the 12 practice fields and the main stadium.

“It’s a very organic place right now,” said Marc Taylor, the construction program manager for the Astros and Nationals.

“I would expect they always will be there when we are fertilizing or reseeding the grass.”

Flocks of birds could be seen Dec. 16 over the main stadium, sitting on the light towers.

“They seem to like to hover over the batter eye as most lawn work is happening at the stadium field,” Taylor said.



Lawmakers target heroin epidemic with two bills

Two Florida lawmakers have responded to the opioid epidemic with bills that would increase sentences for selling fentanyl and require hospitals to provide additional care for overdose victims.

The bills are the first introduced in the Florida Legislature’s 2017 addressing the opioid epidemic. The session begins on March 7.

HB 61, filed by Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, requires hospitals to screen overdose patients to determine the need for additional services and prohibits hospitals from discharging overdose patients to a detox or drug treatment center until the patient is stable.

The attending physician must also attempt to contact the overdose patient’s primary care physician or any other treatment providers who prescribed a controlled substance to the patient within the last year and inform them of the overdose.

If the patient is currently in a treatment program, the hospital’s attending physician must also inform the medical director at the treatment center about the overdose.

The hospital must also inform an overdose patient’s family or emergency contact about the overdose, the drug the attending physician believes may have caused the overdose and provide them with a list of drug treatment providers. Information about how to take legal action to protect an addict under Florida’s Marchman and Baker acts must also be provided.

»» Read the Post investigation – Addiction Treatment: Inside the Gold Rush »»

Finally, the bill bars police and prosecutors from filing criminal charges for drug possession against overdose victims when the drugs are discovered during emergency, life-saving efforts.

SB 150, introduced by Sen. Greg Steube, R, Sarasota on December 12, makes selling, buying or manufacturing at least 4 grams of fentanyl a first-degree felony. Fentanyl is an opioid painkiller used to sedate surgical patients and relieve chronic pain. It is 50 times more powerful than heroin.

In The Palm Beach Post’s Nov. 20 analysis of 216 people who died in 2015 from heroin-related overdoses, fentanyl was found in 42 percent of the cases.

Steube, whose district covers communities particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic, is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Local lawmakers, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, have said they, too, will file bills based on the recommendations of the Sober Home Task Force.

During the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers gave $275,000 to Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg to investigate corruption in the drug treatment industry and propose new laws and regulations and tweaks to existing ones.

The Sober Home Task Force has made nine arrests since Aronberg launched it on July 1. A three-month-long grand jury investigation revealed widespread patient brokering and insurance fraud and recommended changes to laws and regulations.

Aronberg, a former state senator, said he would travel to Tallahassee to urge lawmakers to incorporate the recommendations of the grand jury in their bills and to lobby for additional money for treatment and regulatory oversight.







Celebration of Life service Saturday for daughter of Palm Beach County Commission aide

Tasha L. McCraw, who died at age 33 from an overdose Nov. 18, 2016. She was the daughter of Palm Beach County Commission aide Johnnie Easton.
Tasha L. McCraw, who died at age 33 from an overdose Nov. 18, 2016. She was the daughter of Palm Beach County Commission aide Johnnie Easton.

A “Celebration of Life” vigil for the late Tasha McCraw will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at Boynton Inlet Park in Ocean Ridge.

Friends and relatives will gather on the beach just south of the inlet with candles and lanterns.

McCraw, daughter of long-time Palm Beach County Commission aide Johnnie Easton, died Nov. 18 of a suspected drug overdose after a long battle with addiction.

McCraw’s death, along with a Palm Beach Post series published Nov. 20 about the heroin epidemic, prompted County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay to call for reforms and measures to help addicts.

Easton, McKinlay’s chief aide, said she hopes Saturday’s vigil will “bring awareness to the problems and needs created by the epidemic and lack of resources dedicated to the issues addicts face.”

Easton last week announced her resignation, effective Dec. 31, so she can move to her hometown of Sumrall, Mississippi.

Hail to the (baseball) chiefs: Coolidge and Hoover in town to promote Ballpark of the Palm Beaches

Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover are in town today, golfing on Palm Beach, visiting Santa at the Palm Beach Outlets and mingling with fishermen at the Juno Pier.mall-kid

And it was hard to miss them, thanks to their larger-than-life heads.

“Calvin” and “Herbie,” as they’re known, are the presidential mascots of the Washington Nationals baseball team. They’re in town filming a video that will be shown before spring training games at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

We caught up with them at the outlets mall. Ben Walter, director of corporate partnerships at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, was kind enough to share photos from the mascots’ busy morning. We will catch up to them later in Juno Beach. Check out The Palm Beach Post later for a story.





Heroin epidemic: $25,000 donation to help county buy overdose antidote naloxone

A private Lake Worth drug treatment center today donated $25,000 to Palm Beach County Fire Rescue to buy Narcan, a brand name for the expensive overdose antidote naloxone.

The donation by The Treatment Center of the Palm Beaches will “have true impact” on efforts by fire rescue crews to deal with the local heroin epidemic, Fire Chief Jeff Collins said at a news conference.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue officials with executives of The Treatment Center of the Palm Beaches, a Lake Worth facility that donated $25,000 today to Fire Rescue to help pay for naloxone.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue officials with executives of The Treatment Center of the Palm Beaches, a Lake Worth facility that donated $25,000 on Tuesday Dec. 13, 2016, to Fire Rescue to help pay for naloxone.

The $25,000 will affect about 700 patients, or the rough equivalent of three to four months of emergency overdose calls, said Rich Ellis, fire rescue’s EMS chief.

So far this year, county fire rescue crews have responded to 2,383 calls where naloxone was used. By the end of December, Ellis said, the number for this year could nearly double the roughly 1,300 calls for 2015 in which the drug was given to patients.

Fire Rescue spent about $60,000 last year on naloxone. In the first nine months of 2016, the department has spent $183,000 on the drug. These amounts do not include tax-dollars spent on the drug in cities with their own police and fire-rescue departments, such as Delray Beach.

This year, Fire Rescue’s budget for the drug is $289,000. “That doesn’t mean we have given that much, because we have stocked the trucks,’’ Ellis said.

Next year, crews will start using a nasal spray version of the drug.

“That will be more efficient,’’ Collins said. “Currently when we administer Narcan, it comes by the box and when you break it open for one patient. They may need half the actual dosage and you have to throw the other half out.”

Collins said the donation from The Treatment Center will help address some of the problems detailed in a grand jury report released Monday by the State Attorney’s Office.

“This donation of $25,000 absolutely helps solve some of the issues that were identified in the community,” he said.

“This societal problem knows no boundaries in Palm Beach County. It goes from north to south, from coast to coast. We run calls all day long on heroin overdoses.”

Fire Rescue officials are working with County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay in her efforts to improve the community response to the epidemic, which includes lobbying state lawmakers for more money.

Although Fire Rescue is not actively seeking donations, they hope The Treatment Center’s gesture will spur other private companies in the addiction-treatment industry to donate money for naloxone.

“The donation by The Treatment Center is the tip of the spear,’’ said Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Capt. Houston Park, who has organized a countywide Heroin Task Force.

“They stepped up to the plate on a community effort. With depletion of Narcan as a quickly as we are going through it, any time we get money like this, it’s a tremendous support.”

Drug companies profit on reviving dying heroin addicts

The price of Narcan – the lifesaving heroin-overdose antidote that revives the dying – has skyrocketed, with one formulation rising more than 500 percent in two years, according to an article published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Although Narcan first hit the market in 1971, demand has skyrocketed as the opioid epidemic worsens. And with more potent opioids on the street – such as fentanly – first responders, the largest consumers of the drug, are finding they need multiple doses to revive overdose victims.

In 2015, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue spent $55,000 on naloxone – the generic version of the drug. In the first nine months of 2016, the department had already spent $183,000 on the drug. These amounts do not include tax-dollars spent on the drug in cities with their own police and fire-rescue departments, such as Delray Beach.

Read more of the Post’s exclusive coverage of the heroin epidemic

The drug is available in several formulations: injectable, nasal spray and auto-injectors – a single-dose injector designed for people without medical training.

The patented single-dose auto injector sold by Evzio, which provides real-time, audible instructions on how to use the device, has seen the biggest spike In 2014, a two-pack of single-use prefilled auto-injectors cost $690, according to the article. The current price is $4,500.

The  average price of the nasal spray, two pack of single-use device is $150 – unchanged since it was approved in 2015. This formulation is available at CVS pharmacies in Florida through a statewide, standing prescription.

The average price of the most widely-used injectible, a .4 mg-per-milliliter vial (10 ml) has risen 129 percent since 2012, from $62.29 to $142.49.

The authors of the article liken the increase to those of Mylan, the manufacturer of the EpiPen.

“The naloxone situation has not garnered the type of attention or outrage inspired by that case, perhaps in part because of the stigma associated with opioid use,” according to the article.

Among the recommendations the authors suggest that governments could take:

  • Purchasing naloxone in bulk, “which would create stable demand that might motivate additional companies to begin manufacturing this medication.” This strategy has been used for vaccine manufacturing.
  • Invoke a federal law, 28 U.S.C. section 1498, to contract with manufacturers on behalf of the federal government to produce less costly less costly versions of Evzio’s patented auto-injector in exchange for reasonable royalties — an approach that was considered for procuring ciprofloxacin during the anthrax threat in 2001.
  • Allow importation of generics from international manufacturers that meet production standards comparable to those of the FDA.

To promote transparency in drug pricing, lawmakers could follow initiatives like those taken in Vermont, where new legislation requires companies to justify price increases. In Washington,  the recently proposed and bipartisan-supported Fair Accountability and Innovative Research Drug Pricing Act would require makers of certain drugs to report to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) when the price of a drug increases at least 10 percent in a 12-month period.


First woman arrested in sober home crackdown

BREAKING: Amanda LaFrance, 25, came to Florida three years ago to get clean and found herself in court on Saturday facing 13 counts of brokering other addicts with insurance to Whole Life Recovery, a treatment center in Boynton Beach whose owner and operator faces charges of paying kickbacks for clients.lafrance-mugshot

LaFrance is also the first woman to be charged in the Sober Home Task Force’s crackdown on patient brokering in the sober home business. All eight arrests stem from the business practices Whole Life Recovery.

According to the arrest affidavit, LaFrance deposited $6,750 in 13 checks from Whole Life Recovery for case management services. Deon Hill, her business partner and father of her 6-month-old daughter, deposited a check for $525 from the treatment center.

>> Read more: Addiction Treatment – Inside the gold rush << 

Hill, 50, has not been charged but is currently being held without bond at the Palm Beach County Detention Center on an unrelated armed robbery charge.

LaFrance’s public defender asked that LaFrance be released on her own recognizance or supervised release because she has no criminal history. Her mother, Lorraine Rucki, asked that she be allowed to take her daughter back to New Jersey for treatment or to place her in detox in Palm Beach county.

Assistant State Attorney Justin Chapman argued that LaFrance should be held on the recommended bail:  $39,000 – $3,000 for each of the 13 counts.

“We are dealing with a very vulnerable population,” Chapman said. “They are being herded like cattle basically.”

However, she will remain in jail until she can prove that the money that would be used to post her bail did not come from illegal activities.

LaFrance’s monther, Lorraine Rucki, testified that her daughter relapsed, is homeless, has no job and is already experience withdrawal symptoms in jail.

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who created the task force in July with $275,000 from the legislature, said there will be more arrests.

“The heroin crisis is fueled by bad actors in the treatment industry,” Aronberg said. “Our task force will continue to target sober homes that violate Florida Law and jeopardize their residents safety.”




West Palm Beach lawyer sleuths out how the rich offshore wealth

UPDATE 3:10 p.m. When Sarah Pursglove of Boca Raton realized her husband was leaving her, she turned to a West Palm Beach law firm to track down his enormous wealth, according to a story this week in The New York Times.

What the law firm of Jeffrey D. Fisher discovered was further evidence of how the wealthy offshore wealth through shell companies in foreign countries.

Not only do wives like Pursglove get the shaft, but so do U.S. taxpayers.

Fisher and his firm – Fisher Bendeck & Potter – walks the line of divorce and white-collar litigation, representing the discarded wives of rich men with complex business concerns. When it comes to ugly divorces of the rich and powerful in Palm Beach County, Fisher is often right in the middle.

“The beauty of high-end divorce law it is that it is usually handled on an expedited basis,” Fisher told the New York Times. “If you’re a person like me, who doesn’t want a five-year-long case, there’s nothing better.”

His firm’s website states “Most of Mr. Fisher’s clients remain “stealth,” but the media has covered a number of significant cases.  He represented  professional golfer Greg Norman and the wives divorcing the head of Gulf Keystone Petroleum Todd Kozel and oil tycoon William I. Koch, among many other notables.

Now The New York Times has spun an incredibly complex legal tale of his representation of Pursglove with Fisher as the star.

“When the wall of secrecy is breached, the distinction between upright global citizen and criminal can quickly grow indistinct,” according to the story.

WEST PALM BEACH; 1/27/05: During Fred Keller's murder trial Thursday, Jeffrey D. Fisher, a civil attorney, testifies about the financial and legal aspects of the divorce between Fred and Rosemarie Keller. Keller is charged with killing his wife Rosemarie and attempted murder in the shooting of her brother, Wolfgang Keil. Photo by Lannis Waters/ The Palm Beach Post ... Not for distribution outside Cox papers. OUT Palm Beach, Broward, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee Counties in Florida. Orlando OUT. No Sales. TV OUT. Tabloids OUT. Magazines OUT. Wide World OUT. Internet use OUT.
Jeffrey D. Fisher, a civil attorney, testifies about the financial and legal aspects of the divorce. (Photo: Palm Beach Post)

The target of Fisher’s exploration was a Finnish entrepreneur named Robert Oesterlund.  The businessman swore in a Canadian court that his total net worth totaled just a few million dollars despite the fact that he had two yachts, a $30 million Penthouse and homes in Canada and South Florida — a $5.7 million mansion in Boca Raton.

Oesterlund, himself, likes to jet set around the world and stay on one of his yachts in an effort to avoid paying taxes. Statements found by his accountants put Oesterlund’s worth at least $300 million.

Court records show Oesterlund — with the help of well-known Florida accounting firm Daszkal Bolton — was trying to structure his businesses to insulate himself from paying taxes and future litigation, the Times reported.

“I want to have in writing a statement,” he wrote to his lawyers in 2011, “that I can no longer be subject to Florida or U.S. law.” Take every step necessary, he added, to “remove myself from the country of Evil.”4149529614_09b489801d_o

He is also no stranger to the Florida Attorney General Office, which investigated several of his business before suing his company Xacti in 2013. Oesterlund settled  for $500,000.

His wife, Pursglove, helped him run his businesses — at one time as many as 40 internet companies — after they married in 1998. But he told  her on Christmas Eve 2012 he wanted a divorce. Later, he said if she was in Russia she would get only 10 percent of their wealth by law and in Dubai she would be entitled to nothing.

When the Internal Revenue Service couldn’t help her, Pursglove relied on Fisher and his highly creative lawyers at his firm. They spent millions of their own breaching the defenses of the offshore financial world.

The Cayman Islands – a favorite spot for the wealthy trying to hide assets.

A big win was when Fisher got Palm Beach Circuit Judge Jeffrey Gillen to prohibit Oesterlund from selling, merging or borrowing against any of his assets.

The lawyer discovered Oesterlund had created a company Omega Partners in the Bahamas that siphoned off most of the wealth from his holding company for his businesses. Omega had one employee: Oesterlund.

At one point, the concern was that Oesterlund would go into hiding to keep his wife from key documents that showed a violation of Gillen’s order. The judge threatened him with criminal contempt.

In court, Pursglove and her legal team accused the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff of helping Oesterlund hide his wealth in the Caribbean through a fraudulent scheme.

Court filings now suggest a settlement — though Fisher and Oesterlund’s remaining lawyers said they were barred from discussing one.

 To read the whole New York Times story click here.

Wining and opining: Boynton woman uncorks frustrations about sober homes

Wine, or any alcohol, isn’t allowed in a sober home. But that doesn’t mean you can’t mention sober homes on bottles of wine. Just ask Linda Morton of Boynton Beach.

Linda Morton holds a bottle of homemade win from her "Rehab Road" winery.
Linda Morton holds a bottle of homemade wine from her “Rehab Road” winery.

Morton lives on Riviera Drive, a cul de sac just north of Woolbright Road that is home to at least three sober-living residences. She and her neighbors are so frustrated by noise and traffic from the recovery homes that they coined a nickname for their street earlier this summer: “Rehab Drive.’’

Morton, who works as an accountant, also has a hobby: She gets together with friends every few months at her house to make homemade wine from kits.

When bottling her latest batch of “seaside sauvignon blanc” in October, she made up fancy labels with a new name: “Riviera Rehab Road Winery.’’

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is a perfect label,’’’ said Morton, who lives next-door to a sober home and across the street from another one. There’s also a sober home at the end of the cul de sac, and Morton says a fourth sober home is planning to open on the street.

“Four (sober homes) on a street of 14 houses? Hello?’’ she said.

Mike Rumpf, the city’s planning and zoning director, said the city has not received an application for a fourth sober home on the street. But officials are aware of the other three homes.

wine-bottlesMorton and other neighbors have complained to the city for more than year about problems from the sober homes, ranging from cars racing down the street to being cursed by sober-home residents when they ask to keep noise down.

In most cases, the city is limited in imposing any restrictions because sober homes are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“They are rude and obnoxious,’’ Morton said of the sober home residents. “It’s like trying to fight somebody who has a sword and I have a toothpick.’’

Those frustrations, she said, are what prompted her to resort to a bit of comic relief and add the “Rehab Road” labels to her latest batch of wine. “It’s like the stages of grief,’’ she joked.

Her latest batch of “Rehab Road” wine won’t be ready for six months. But when they are ready to uncork, she might throw a neighborhood party.

“I’ll invite my (anti-sober home) neighbors to come over and drink it.’’