Trial postponed for Sumter-based Early Autism Project co-founder

BY KAYLA ROBINS kayla@theitem.com
Posted 5/15/19

A federal trial for the co-founder of a Sumter-based autism behavioral therapy center has been pushed back to the beginning of next year to account for more than 100,000 documents related to the case.

United States District Judge Joseph F. …

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Trial postponed for Sumter-based Early Autism Project co-founder

Posted

A federal trial for the co-founder of a Sumter-based autism behavioral therapy center has been pushed back to the beginning of next year to account for more than 100,000 documents related to the case.

United States District Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr. issued the order at the end of April to postpone the trial of Susan Butler until January 2020. Butler has pleaded not guilty to accusations of defrauding Medicaid and Tricare by more than $9 million while running Early Autism Project Inc., which serves children and young adults with autism, by reportedly over-billing the medical insurance providers for therapist services that were partially or not provided between January 2007 and June 2016.

Anderson said in the scheduling order through the United States District Court in the District of South Carolina that this is a "complex case involving voluminous discovery" and that Butler and her attorneys have been informed the government, as plaintiff in the case, will produce more than 100,000 documents.

A "significant amount" of evidence has already been produced in the form of witness statements and interviews.

"The court is confident that both sides are proceeding in good faith and as expeditiously as possible given the volume of documents that have and will be produced," Anderson wrote in the order.

There is also evidence being produced that is in the possession of a law firm related to a qui tam action associated with this case, which means a private citizen has brought evidence against Butler under the False Claims Act. A provision in the act allows persons or entities with evidence of fraud against federal programs or contracts to sue the accused wrongdoer on behalf of the government. The government has the right to intervene and join the action, and the private citizen receives a share of the award if the defendant is found guilty.

EAP was bought by ChanceLight Inc. in 2013, after billing policies were already under investigation. Once the new ownership learned about the accusations, ChanceLight has "reformed every policy and procedure to make sure this will not happen under [the parent company's] ownership," said Sarah Vega, senior vice president for operations of EAP.

EAP settled its False Claims Act case in August 2018 by entering a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the government, requiring an independent review organization to conduct annual claims reviews and $8,833,615 in restitution.

The former employee who filed the lawsuit as a whistleblower in July 2015 received $435,000 of the restitution.

The new timeline for Butler's trial begins with the government producing expert witness discovery, or evidence, by Aug. 30. Butler has until Sept. 30 to do so.

Pretrial motions will be filed by November before a pretrial conference in December. A jury will be selected in January.

If convicted, Butler will be required to repay the full amount involved in the alleged fraud.

Both sides asked to postpone the trial. Until the case is tried, Butler cannot leave the state without the court's permission and must avoid contact with anyone who may be a victim or witness in the investigation.

That includes former EAP director of clinical services Angela Keith and co-founder Ann Eldridge. They both pleaded guilty in January to making false statements to Medicaid for services that were partly or never rendered between January 2009 and June 2016.

Part of their guilty plea is a $1,000 fine, imprisonment for up to one year with one year of supervised release and a requirement to testify during any related trial.