Contracting with Criminals: Where government money is going

One Fayetteville family believes the system failed them and those on the state level believe something needs to be done. <b>NewsChannel 9's Leigh Isaacson investigates.</b>
Fayetteville (WSYR-TV) - We take certain things for granted – brushing our teeth, taking a shower, using the bathroom.

But for one Fayetteville family with two boys suffering from Duchanne Muscular Dystrophy, they know all too well the struggles of what seem like everyday tasks.

The Willis family turned to the government for financial help when they felt the time was right to improve their home and make it accessible for the boys.

They soon discovered a snag, however, when the government approved a contractor with a criminal background.

Alison and Matt Willis carry their boys – 11-year-old twins Jack and Nolan Willis – upstairs while their downstairs bathroom is renovated to be handicap accessible.

The arrangement has been unwelcome for both the boys and their parents.

“It would hurt me sometimes and it would hurt my parents of course because they would have to lug me upstairs and stuff,” Jack Willis said.

“They're each 120 pounds a piece and we'd have to carry them up the stairs to our very small corner master shower and the logistics of getting them in and out of the shower - soaking wet- they're slippery and it was a very dangerous situation,” Alison Willis said.

The Willis family is having their home renovated in order to accommodate the boys through a Medicaid Waiver Program project – which is paid for with taxpayer money. The contractor was chosen through a bid process.

Jeffrey DeVeau of CNY Custom Carpentry had the lowest bid of three applicants – for $14,400 he said he could complete the work in five to seven days.

He was paid 50 percent up front by the Onondaga County Department of Social Services in August. But six months later, the work remains incomplete.

The bathroom still hasn’t been finished.

DeVeau says he was sick in September. Alison Willis says he then offered a litany of explanations.

“There were a variety of excuses, I was told the cabinets that were ordered had not been shipped. That items that were ordered were on back order, that he had something else going on - could he come at a later date,” she said.

When she tried to petition Medicaid for a new contractor, she discovered DeVeau’s criminal history:

In 2005, Jeffrey DeVeau appeared in Federal court to plead guilty for fraud. DeVeau admitted that he participated in a money scheme involving loans for heavy construction equipment. He was sentenced to pay $15 million in restitution and he spent a year in prison.

“Upon learning the information I did learn, it was quite shocking, and it was maddening and I felt like I was being taken advantage of,” Willis said.

Willis wanted to know how the county could contract with a convict.

“With any contract should we be looking at it routinely to make sure that we have not made it possible for a vender who might not be on the up and up to participate in our business? Yeah, there's opportunity for that,” said Onondaga County Human Resources Director Ann Rooney.

NewsChannel 9 discovered that the county is only required to do one very simple version of a background check.

The county searches a list of people in New York State who are not allowed to receive money for Medicaid. If they’re on the list, they aren’t permitted to do the project.

If they’re not on the list, they are allowed to do the job.

“We would like to know – truly – how a vendor like that is not on that excluded Medicaid list and they should be,” said Rooney.

The list is created by the Office of the Medicaid Inspector General in the State Department of Health.

It's a list of all of the enrolled Medicaid providers who have committed offenses or crimes related to Medicaid or health care.

Contractor Kenneth Skender of the Rochester area is on the list because his company stole $300,000 from Medicaid for home modifications it didn’t complete, according to the Attorney General's office.

DeVeau defrauded companies out of more than $15 million, but because his felonies do not relate to health care, he's not on the list and can bid on public projects.

Organizations like Enable work with this list daily. They helped organize the Willis family's bathroom renovations, and have a contract with the county to coordinate between the Medicaid Care at Home program and families with disabilities.

“They are at a vulnerable time in their life and they're looking for something to improve their children's lives. I think the system owes them to have the best possible person that can be there. That's why I think this whole list and this process needs to be improved upon,” Enable Executive Director Prudence York said.

Monica Hickey-Martin is the director of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit at the Attorney General's office. She says the list could be changed with legislative action, but the vetting process doesn't have to stop with that exclusion list.

“Just because they're not on the exclusion list - with a conviction - doesn't mean the state or the county can't refuse to do business with them. That's always the option,” Hickey-Martin said.

The county can require applicants to pay for fingerprinting or for criminal background checks; or simply search for the contractor using Google or a similar search engine.

“I would recommend anything for program integrity for doing more checks than less. Obviously there's a resource issue and there's only so much a certain individual can do -but simple internet searches,” Hickey-Martin said.

Willis found Jeffrey DeVeau's criminal history in moments using a simple Internet search. And if the county or Enable had found it before DeVeau was cut his first check in August. Maybe the twins would have their downstairs bathroom by now.

“The bathroom affords them the opportunity to be as independent as possible. They'll be able to essentially shower by themselves, toilet themselves, brush their teeth. Do everything an able-bodied person can do. And without that, they're almost completely dependent,” Willis said.

Within the past few weeks, the Willis family has been able to retain a new contractor. And their downstairs bathroom is almost done.

The new contractor will receive payment in the amount of $7,200 – the remainder of the Medicaid money dedicated to the bathroom.

NewsChannel 9 contacted DeVeau, who said he wanted to share his story, but has since declined to return phone calls.
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