In Pennsylvania, almost anyone can start their own psychiatric clinic, be they a doctor, an experienced hospital administrator, or even a ward leader, like Carlos Matos.
Matos says he is the co-founder of the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic (JCMHC), near Fifth and Huntingdon streets in Fairhill. He had been a Democratic ward leader until he pleaded guilty to a felony charge in 2007 for bribing three Atlantic City councilmen and was barred from political work — although he resumed his role as leader of the 19th Ward last year, after his probation ended.
Although Matos’ attorney says Matos no longer works at the clinic, a whistleblower lawsuit filed in the Court of Common Pleas last month alleges that he was the director of JCMHC in 2013. The suit also claims that he and another administrator fired an employee for reporting what she said were “fraudulent billing practices” at the clinic.
Matos, when reached Tuesday, said he had not heard of the lawsuit, and referred questions to his lawyer, Geoffrey Johnson, who said a formal response to the complaint was pending, and “absolutely denied” the allegations. Johnson said the termination was solely performance-based.
However, Yeadon resident Sheree Brown says she was just doing her job. She was hired as the deputy director of business operations at JCMHC in June 2013. Her primary duties “included analysis of rejected Medicaid billing and her recommendations as to what action to take to correct the billing,” according to the lawsuit. It was an important position: The surrounding Fairhill neighborhood has one of the highest poverty rates in the city and 95 percent of patients received some form of subsidy, like Medicaid.
It’s a lot of paperwork to deal with, but the responsibility didn’t bother Brown, a six-year veteran of the city’s Department of Behavioral Health, which pays out money for patient costs through a city contract. What did start to trouble her, according to the legal complaint, were what she said were inexplicable medical charges and soaring bills for psychotherapist time that didn’t seem to mesh with reality.
Brown puts it bluntly.
“The billing process wasn’t being done according to state laws,” she said in a recent interview.
Brown noted what she said was a pattern of overbilling within her first month of work and says she immediately notified the clinic’s director, whom she names as Matos.
She says she also notified administrator Sandy Acosta, a defendant in an earlier vote-buying case that also involved Matos as a co-defendant (in that case, she was convicted, he was not).
According to Brown, neither Matos nor Acosta seemed particularly concerned with the alleged overbilling.
“They said they would take care of it,” she said. “But it really just led up to my termination.”
She alleges that each of the three times she reported what she thought were suspicious medical charges in 2013, Matos or Acosta promised to take action, but nothing changed — except Brown’s workload.
“They took responsibilities away from me. They wouldn’t allow me to look at billing anymore,” she said. “And they were always adding new responsibilities, saying, ‘You need [to take on] clients. You need more of this or that.’”
Brown believes her shifting duties were a smokescreen to cover her eventual termination.
“It put a lot of stress on me,” she said. “They were basically trying to make up something they could say I wasn’t doing right.”
Then, about five months after she first reported her concerns, JCMHC administrators told Brown, ‘It was not working out,’ according to her legal complaint. But Brown believes she was fired simply for doing her job, and is now seeking in excess of $50,000 in compensation, under Pennsylvania’s whistleblower law, in addition to legal fees.
Matos’ lawyer, Johnson, categorically denied that Matos was even employed at JCMHC at the time, and said of Brown: “This young lady shopped this case to a number of lawyers.”
Brown’s assertion, if proven, that Matos was serving as director in 2013 is potentially problematic. He did not file paperwork last year as a subcontractor at the clinic, a city requirement. And at the state level, Pennsylvania has the right to revoke a psychiatric clinic’s license if an “owner, operator or staff person … has been convicted of a felony.”
A spokesperson for the commonwealth’s Department of Public Welfare, which licenses mental-health clinics, said the agency was taking the case seriously and would “work with all appropriate parties to the extent of our ability to ensure that all matters of waste, fraud and abuse are investigated thoroughly.”
Acosta, who is listed as the clinic’s “administrator” on city contracts, did not return calls for comment, but Roland Turk, who is listed on state inspection reports as JCMHC’s “clinical director,” said that he was also unfamiliar with the suit. However, he added that he didn’t consider the allegations of fraud taking place in the clinic to be any of his business.
“I’m a part-time clinical director. My interest is only in the clinical stuff,” said the 74-year-old social worker. “Frankly, I really don’t want to talk about this kind of thing anymore.”
This is not the first time the clinic has run into trouble. In 2009, the IRS placed a tax lien against the clinic. In 2010, after Matos’ three-year prison sentence, he received mental-health treatment at JCMHC even though he was also employed there as a counselor.
During a routine visit, his probation officer wrote that he observed Matos “wearing a Pennsylvania state Senate shirt and lunching with [former state rep candidate] Jonathan Ramos,” according to the Inquirer.
During that same time, Matos’ wife, Renee Tartaglione Matos, the sister of state Sen. Christina Tartaglione, was the president of JCMHC (and proprietor of Norris Hancock LLC, the building’s owner, according to city records). However, Renee Tartaglione Matos was simultaneously employed overseeing voter registration with the Office of City Commissioners, then run by her mother, Margaret Tartaglione.
According to the city charter, municipal employees are not supposed to benefit from city contracts directly or indirectly — contracts like the one JCMHC has been receiving from the city’s Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) since 2005, according to a DBH spokesman.
Renee Tartaglione Matos was dismissed from her city job in 2010 after she admitted to violating a ban on political activity by city employees. She later also stepped down as president of JCMHC — although she still holds a seat on the clinic’s board, according to Johnson. Tartaglione Matos did not respond to a call for comment.
On the outside, the clinic is just another unremarkable building on Fifth Street. On a recent afternoon, a few people trickled in or out. A forlorn Christmas wreath hung over the front of the brick clinic building, baking in the warm May sun.
Source: Ryan Briggs, “Ex-employee alleges she was fired for reporting ‘wrongdoing’ at psych clinic,” Philadelphia City Paper, May 8, 2014.