National Roundup

Nursing home owner says he spent Medicaid funds on strippers

FESTUS, Mo. (AP) — The owner of a suburban St. Louis nursing home where 60 residents had to be rescued after food ran out and trash piled up has pleaded guilty to federal charges for stealing $667,000 from Medicaid and spending it on strippers, gambling and other things.

Johnnie Mac Sells, 52, pleaded guilty Wednesday to two counts of health care fraud, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported  He could get up to three years in prison when he’s sentenced July 25 and he has to pay back what he stole.

The Benchmark Healthcare nursing home in Festus was shut down last summer. Authorities said bills went unpaid, paychecks bounced, trash piled up and food deliveries stopped.

Missouri health officials in July sought to put Benchmark into emergency receivership. They backed down when food deliveries resumed, but an August follow-up visit found that four residents were not getting medicines they needed for congestive heart failure, epilepsy and schizophrenia because pharmacy bills hadn’t been paid.

The state closed the nursing home in September and relocated its residents.

Prosecutors on Wednesday revealed that for three years starting in 2013, Sells stole a large portion of funds provided by Medicaid for Benchmark residents. He used Benchmark’s debit card to pay $185,000 at adult entertainment clubs and $15,000 on pet care, $4,500 at casinos and $12,000 at his country club.

Sells’ attorney, Scott Rosenblum, told Judge John A. Ross that his client struggled with drug and alcohol addiction but had been sober “for some time.”

Nothing remains of the nursing home empire, Legacy Health Systems, established in 1938 in southeast Missouri by Sells’ grandmother, Clara Sells. The business had expanded into a $100 million company with 27 facilities across Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee before its collapse.

Sells also is also due to stand trial in St. Charles County in June on charges of domestic abuse and sexual misconduct. Prosecutors say he slammed his girlfriend through a glass coffee table and exposed his genitals to her 12-year-old son. Sells told the Post-Dispatch last year that he “didn’t beat anybody.”

Parents win ­battle over ­toddler’s last name of ‘Allah’

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia has issued a birth certificate for a toddler with the last name “Allah” after initially declining to do so because that doesn’t match either of the parents’ last names, a civil rights group that sued on behalf of the parents said Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sued last month on behalf of Elizabeth Handy and Bilal Walk, who had chosen the name ZalyKha Graceful Lorraina Allah. The group said it is dropping its lawsuit because the Georgia Department of Health has issued a birth certificate with the name the couple had chosen.

“This is an important vindication of parental rights and a long-overdue victory for Elizabeth and Bilal,” ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young said in a news release. “No one wants to live in a world where the government can dictate what you can and cannot name your child. It goes against our values, the legislature’s intent, and the plain language of the law.”

Now that the child has a birth certificate, her parents can get a Social Security number for her, which will make it possible for them to access medical coverage and enroll her in public school, the ACLU statement said.

A Department of Public Health lawyer had argued state law requires a baby’s surname to be that of the father or the mother for the initial birth record. They said the last name of the child, who was born in 2015, should either be Handy, Walk or a combination of the two.

Lawyers for the parents argued that the law says the birth certificate shall include the surname “as designated by both parents.” Additionally, they noted, the state had previously issued birth certificates with the last name “Allah” for two older sons.

Man freed from jail after 3 years when ­prosecutor says murder case is weak

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man who spent more than three years behind bars on murder and arson charges walked out of jail Wednesday after a prosecutor admitted the case against him is weak.

Randal Wagoner was scheduled for trial next week on charges he killed Kathy Johnson in March 2014 and burned down her home. Judge James Daniel granted his release without bond Wednesday but he still faces the murder and arson charges.

The Florida Times-Union reports Wagoner walked out of the jail with a Bible in hand. “Three years,” said Waggoner, who’s always maintained his innocence. “Three years. Man.”

As the investigation into Johnson’s death continues, Wagoner will stay at his mother’s house and attempt to get his old job as a truck driver back. He’ll have a curfew and he won’t be allowed to contact Johnson’s family. He’ll also have to submit to random drug tests.

As Wagoner’s case worked its way through the judicial system, defense attorneys were able to cast doubt on almost all of the state’s expert witnesses.

“I’ve never had a person with charges like this released,” said Wagoner’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Micahel Bateh. He credited Assistant State Attorney London Kite, who started working on the case in November just before his original trial date.

“She was really the white knight in this case,” Bateh said. “When she kept looking, we would tell her something and she would say, ‘you’re right,’ and we need to dig deeper, and that’s what we wanted. We wanted her to dig deeper.”

Wagoner’s release may also signal changes at the state attorney’s office, since Melissa Nelson beat former State Attorney Angela Corey in a November election. One of Nelson’s first decisions was not to retain 11 employees, including Peter Overstreet who led the prosecution in Wagoner’s case.

In Wagoner’s case, the newspaper reported, a medical examiner initially said Johnson died by blunt force-trauma. After the defense hired a prominent medical examiner to review the case, the prosecution’s witness changed his opinion.
On Wednesday, Kite said the medical examiner still believes it’s a homicide, but he now has reservations.
In addition, newly analyzed DNA evidence found under Johnson’s fingernails appears to belong to a man, but the DNA is not consistent with Wagoner. Kite says she wants more DNA testing.