Two and a half years ago, state insurance investigator Bill Griffin received a simple fraud complaint against a Palm Beach County drug treatment provider.
On its face, the complaint looked no more extraordinary than the other 16,000 cases the Division of Insurance Fraud looked into that year.
But the more he dug into it, the more his eyes widened, and today, that complaint has spawned a billion-dollar insurance fraud investigation into the county’s lucrative drug treatment industry.
Griffin spoke publicly for the first time about the origins of an investigation that is looming over the county’s fourth largest industry, but he couldn’t say too much for fear of jeopardizing the cases.
What he could say is he now has nothing to do with the investigation he started.
In April, he says, his boss at the state Division of Insurance Fraud suddenly stripped him of his cases and removed him from the federal task force, so he quit.
Griffin, who was based in West Palm Beach, said he never has been told why he was removed.
Biggest insurance fraud case
in Florida history?
“I’m still confused why somebody would shoot themselves in the foot on something this big and this bold,” he said. “I think that’s pretty safe to say that it’s scheduled to be the largest (insurance fraud) case in the history of the state of Florida.”
Although Griffin was its brainchild, his departure shouldn’t jeopardize the investigation, he said, because the FBI has taken the lead, and he has faith in those agents.
Still, it’s a bitter ending for someone who came out of retirement to work insurance fraud after 25 years of headline-grabbing arrests at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
“Honestly, dumb luck — I stumbled across this stupid case,” he said. “Little did I realize the kind of greed and controversy I’d stir within my own office.”
In his April 12 resignation letter, addressed to Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and obtained by The Palm Beach Post through a records request, Griffin fumed about his removal.
“Over the past few months, it has been made increasingly clear that it was the intentions of some within my chain of command to remove me at any cost from the FBI federal task force and prohibit me from leading the federal investigations to which I was assigned,” the letter states. “With over 30+ years in law enforcement, I have never had to work under these conditions.”
A spokeswoman for Atwater, who oversees the Insurance Fraud Division, declined to answer questions about why Griffin was removed.
She said, “This employee has made many claims that are false” but, despite repeated requests, didn’t elaborate until Friday at 6:06 p.m., after the story was posted online for more than four hours.
In the Friday statement, spokeswoman Ashley Carr said it wasn’t true that Griffin was removed from a task force.
She added that “a communication gap between the detective and his superiors grew wider, preventing the team from functioning at its highest capacity,” and “several efforts were made to remedy the lack of communication” before Griffin quit.
In response, Griffin said: “They flat lied.”
He said he was first told he was taken off the task force on April 8, when West Palm Beach FBI Special Agent Bill Stewart called him. Stewart is leading the FBI agents on the task force, and Griffin was leading it for the state, he said.
According to Griffin, Stewart said Division of Insurance Fraud Director Simon Blank called the FBI agent earlier that day and told him Griffin was off the case.
Griffin told Stewart he hadn’t heard anything about it. Stewart was h0rrified.
“He said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m telling you,’” Griffin said.
Griffin said he didn’t officially know until April 12, when Griffin’s captain told him. Griffin quit that day.
Atwater’s office could produce no records documenting the controversy, and Griffin’s most recent evaluations — including one a month before he quit — were glowing, with above-average marks overall.
In his evaluation approved in February, his supervisor wrote of his valuable role on the task force.
“At every meeting I attend at the Health Care Fraud Task Force, the FBI SAC (special agent in charge) makes sure that he informs me of Det. Griffin’s value to the case and his ability to be a major contributor to the task force,” the supervisor wrote.
The supervisor also gave him above-average marks for communication, writing, “He liaisons effortlessly with other agencies and keeps me well informed of his investigative activities.”
The FBI declined to comment. Griffin said he never heard from Atwater or any other top brass after he quit.
John Lehman, president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, a trade organization that establishes guidelines for sober homes, had given up on local law enforcement after his efforts to get them to crack down on corrupt treatment centers and sober home operators went nowhere.
That all changed when he got his first call from Griffin.
“When you think straight shooter, that’s this guy,” Lehman said. “This is his thing, and he gets very frustrated by the politics.”
Restless after 25 years
with sheriff’s office
Before he joined the Division of Insurance Fraud, Griffin was a longtime major fraud detective at PBSO, investigating tens of millions of dollars worth of fraud and repeatedly generating headlines.
He and a partner once donned UPS uniforms and drove a brown truck to catch a woman who was using stolen credit cards for online purchases. He busted an $8.5 million mortgage scam. He caught former cops, lawyers and home-care providers bilking friends or clients out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He retired in 2010, but quickly grew restless, and when he saw an open investigator’s position at the local office of the Division of Insurance Fraud, he leapt.
In his new role, he was handled complaints of insurance fraud. Most never pan out. In five years since Griffin started, the division’s insurance fraud complaints have grown to more than 17,000 in the 2014-15 fiscal year. About 1,300 — 7.6 percent — resulted in an arrest.
The complaint that would lead to the biggest case of his career started the same way.
“It started off as a simple case, no big deal,” he said. “As I kept looking deeper and deeper into it, it started getting bigger and bigger and it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’”
He would not give more details but did say it was against a sober industry provider.
Once it was clear he was looking at tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes — and growing — he realized that it was too big for the state agency.
“Honestly, the state did not have the resources or the manpower to run with it,” he said. “We’re a 20-man office out of West Palm. I knew there was no way that we could handle this ourselves.”
He and his then-lieutenant went to the local FBI office, where agents seized on the case.
“I’ve worked with a lot of FBI agents in my lifetime, and the guys in West Palm Beach are some of the best I’ve worked with,” he said.
In September 2014, FBI agents descended on Green Terrace, an apartment complex off Belvedere Road in West Palm Beach. Armed with a search warrant, agents left with boxes of papers from owner Kenneth Bailynson’s office.
Then, in December, the FBI, U.S. Postal Service and state fraud investigators raided the Delray Beach headquarters of businessman Eric Snyder’s two treatment companies: Real Life Recovery of Delray Beach and Halfway There.
Despite the raids, no arrests have been made and no indictments have gone public.
Find a case, ‘put a bow
on it and we’ll prosecute’
Lehman said he and others in the recovery industry had seen years ago that it was rife with corruption, with allegations of fraudulent insurance claims, patient brokering and kickbacks, but his efforts to get local authorities interested in going after the bad operators went nowhere.
Lehman recalled pressing for action in a 2014 meeting with State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who now is heading a state-sanctioned task force to look at ways laws and regulations can be improved regarding sober homes.
“We told him there is a lot of patient brokering going on and we tried to describe the moving pieces at that time,” he said. “Aronberg cuts us off and says, ‘I’m not sure I see the crime here,’ and his staff says, ‘Really?’”
He said Aronberg told him, “Let’s say there is a crime. You boys need to find a law enforcement agency that has jurisdictional authority to cross over county lines. You need to go to the state and when you get one of those organizations to pursue a case and put a bow on it and deliver it to us, then we’ll prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”
After that meeting, “We know we’re not going to get anyone in Palm Beach County to help,” Lehman concluded.
When asked to discuss the meeting, Aronberg spokesman Mike Edmondson said the state has laws against patient brokering and kickbacks, but they’re outdated, making it difficult or impossible to go after bad operators.
“That is the industry’s argument, that there are existing laws on the books that could be used to regulate or prosecute any entity that is breaking the law,” Edmondson said. “I think the answer to that is, show me where in the state of Florida where that’s happening.”
He added, “Statutes that are on the books for certain conduct, I think arguably, never anticipated what is going on now.”
After the FBI sober home raids and The Post’s stories, Aronberg got involved, and the Florida Legislature this year awarded his office $275,000 to create a task force to look at changing the laws.
Last week, Lehman met with Aronberg and one of his chief assistants, Al Johnson, about the task force.
“Having met with chief assistant state attorney Al Johnson, I’m confident that his office is committed to efficient, meaningful prosecution of the predatory opportunists currently taking advantage of this vulnerable population in Palm Beach County,” Lehman said.
Griffin on the ball
But Lehman’s conclusion that no one locally would go after questionable sober home operators proved wrong. A few months after meeting with Aronberg, Lehman got a surprise call from Griffin.
“He said, ‘I understand you’ve been looking to talk to me. My name is Bill Griffin and I’m with the Department of Insurance Fraud. I’ve been assigned by Tallahassee to look into this problem,’” Lehman said. “I asked him, ‘When do you want to meet?’ and he said, ‘Now seems like a good time.’ I got in my car and met with him.”
After that, Lehman and his organization, which receives complaints of all kinds about questionable sober home operators, began funneling information to Griffin and investigators.
Griffin called Lehman an “asset to the task force.”
“He’s in a position where a lot of people around the country send their kids down here and don’t know who to contact (for complaints),” he said. “So they go to the drug rehabilitation industry group and that’s FARR.”
Lehman knew which tips were valid enough to forward to Griffin, and those went straight up to the FBI, Griffin said.
More than 40 state and federal agents are assigned to fraud cases involving the drug rehab industry, Griffin said, and more agencies have been trying to get in on the action.
“Two and a half years ago, nobody cared,” he said. “Now? I get calls all the time from people wanting to get involved in this.”
He said it was the biggest case of his career, when measured in either dollars or the number of people affected.
“This thing is actually affecting tens of thousands of young people who are in recovery and their families, plus it’s a billion dollars worth of false insurance claims,” he said. “It would not be hard to articulate this affecting hundreds of thousands of people.”
He said the bad operators are affecting everyone — and killing people.
“This case, they’re crippling society. They’re making insurance premiums go up,” he said. “God, almighty, they’re dying.”
What The Post Found
The addiction treatment industry in Palm Beach County is our fourth largest — generating, conservatively, about $1 billion a year. The Post has reported widely on the industry this past year, including the allegations of insurance fraud based on urine testing. To read our coverage, go to www.mypalmbeach.com/soberhomes