Weinberger sentenced to 7 years
BY Teresa Auch Schultz email@example.com October 12, 2012 3:00PM
U.S. District Judge Philip Simon, left, sentences Mark Weinberger to 84 months in federal prison for insurance fraud during a hearing in Hammond Friday Oct. 2, 2012. | Lou Chukman~ for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 14, 2012 3:01PM
A federal judge sentenced former Merrillville nose doctor Mark Weinberger to seven years in prison, noting the wake of destruction he left after fleeing the country eight years ago to escape hundreds of malpractice cases and an impending criminal investigation.
The sentence, which is more than three years longer than the recommended sentencing range, ends a long criminal case that saw an extradition from Italy, a rejected plea agreement and pleas from his victims for justice.
U.S. District Judge Philip Simon said during the hearing Friday afternoon in Hammond that he couldn’t go along with the recommended range of 37 to 46 months because he didn’t feel the guidelines took into account Weinberger’s obstruction of justice and the true amount of loss in the case.
“The fallout is just enormous,” Simon said.
Simon talked of the damage Weinberger did to his patients, abusing their trust in him as a doctor by treating them as ATMs and billing their insurance companies for surgeries he never actually performed. The judge said he was also convinced Weinberger knew what was coming when he abandoned his wife during a vacation to Europe in September 2004, a month before a federal grand jury heard evidence against him. Federal charges of health care fraud came two years later.
Meanwhile, Simon said, the government had to waste time and money trying to track him down without success and then again in the process to extradite him after Italian police finally caught him, five years after his flight, camping at the base of a mountain in northern Italy near the border with Switzerland.
“That’s an enormous expense,” Simon said.
Patients hurt over and over
Weinberger’s flight also led to numerous legal cases involving his patients and employees, whom he left stranded. His employees couldn’t access their retirement plans, which were held by Weinberger, and his patients couldn’t get to their medical records so they could see other doctors to help them with their problems. The practice was put into a receivership, a case Simon oversaw and that was wrapped up just last year. Many of his patients who had already been hurt by Weinberger were hurt again when the receiver legally had to dun them because Weinberger never charged them for their insurance co-payments.
“Imagine these patients who feel wronged in the first place, and then being run down for the deductibles,” Simon said.
Simon also said he doesn’t believe the true loss amount is the $529,000 cited in sentencing reports. He pointed out that because of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s limited resources, it couldn’t investigate all of Weinberger’s hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of other cases. Instead, the office picked just 25 cases, from which it found the 22 that involved fraud.
“I would have to be a fool” to think the loss was not more, Simon said, adding that Weinberger’s tax returns show he made $30.5 million in three years.
He gave credit to Weinberger, who spoke at the hearing, for efforts he has made in prison to improve himself, including cooking food for and teaching yoga to other inmates at the Metropolitan Correction Center in Chicago. The judge said he likely would have sentenced Weinberger to even more time had it not been for those efforts.
Weinberger is also an intelligent man, Simon said, and likely could have made millions of dollars legally.
“It’s a tragedy what’s going on here,” he said.
Epic case ends
Weinberger apologized for his actions, saying he wished he could go back to change what he did.
“I lied, I stole, I betrayed a sacred trust,” Weinberger said. “I have no excuse; there is no excuse.
“I am sorry.”
He said he let down numerous people, including his family, mentors and patients, and called his behavior “bizarre.”
“I wish every day I could undo the past, but I can’t,” he said.
Weinberger said he wasn’t sure if he could ever redeem himself but that he would try.
“Please, your honor, give me a chance to try,” he asked Judge Simon.
His attorney, Visvaldis Kupsis, had argued earlier this week for a sentence of 39 months, which would equal time served. However, during the hearing Friday he increased the request to 48 months, which is what Weinberger’s first plea agreement called for, because the sentencing report had increased the loss amount.
Kupsis argued that compared to other insurance fraud schemes across the country, Weinberger’s wasn’t that bad or complicated. For instance, other cases often involve doctors who pay people to act as patients. Even in Northwest Indiana, former Dr. Jong Hi Bek served just 41 months for prescribing medication to addicts.
“Mark Weinberger’s a thief,” Kupsis said. “He admits that.”
Weinberger appeared relieved when he heard that Simon would accept his plea agreement. The judge rejected the first agreement in April 2011 because he didn’t think the four-year sentence it called for was appropriate.
After the hearing, Kupsis said he was glad the sentence didn’t go up to the second plea agreement’s cap of 120 months but wished it would have been less. Despite the longer sentence, Kupsis said he thinks Weinberger and everyone else was glad to see the epic case come to an end.
He also gave credit to the federal attorneys in the case for not getting involved in a “mob mentality.”
Victims attend sentencing
Weinberger’s case has drawn national media attention, and many of Weinberger’s former patients have spoken out against him because of injuries they’ve suffered from his surgeries. The criminal case dealt only with the insurance fraud, however.
That didn’t stop several of them from attending the sentencing. Gary resident William Boyer, who has successfully sued Weinberger, testified during the hearing about how his voice has never been the same since his throat was damaged during surgery. During the hearing, he sat next to Peggy Hood, the sister of Phyllis Barnes, one of Weinberger’s former patients who died from cancer that he never detected.
Hood’s attorney, Kenneth J. Allen, praised the sentence and Judge Simon.
“This is certainly a nugget of justice in a sea of injustice,” Allen said, adding that Barnes’ family has not been able to collect on a $13 million judgment awarded by a Lake County jury against Weinberger.
Another victim, Marzetta Williams of Gary, said Weinberger told her she needed surgery to solve a cough that had lasted two years. The surgery didn’t help her, however, and she later found out the cough came from an allergy she had to dust mites.
“I have two holes in my head I have to live with for the rest of my life,” she said.
She added that she would have liked to have seen Weinberger receive an even longer sentence.
The sentence means Weinberger will likely serve the next several years in prison. He will probably receive credit for time served, about 34 months. However, he must serve 85 percent of the full sentence, or 71 months.