Drug counselor pleads guilty to $1 million health care fraud

Willis (Source: Charlotte Mecklenburg Jail)
Willis (Source: Charlotte Mecklenburg Jail)
A 2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur similar to that which the Feds seized. (Source: The Car Connection)
A 2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur similar to that which the Feds seized. (Source: The Car Connection)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A Charlotte drug counselor pleaded guilty Thursday to money laundering charges and admitted that she gained at least $1 million an the illegal scheme -- during a time the Feds also say she was addicted to crack cocaine.

Sarah Lavonne Willis, 49, of Charlotte was charged in November of last year in a 27 count bill of indictment that alleges that she submitted false Medicaid claims and spent the money on vehicles including a Bentley, a Hummer and an Escalade and lavish stays at the Ritz Carlton, US Attorney Anne M. Thompkins said in a press release.

Willis, whose company was Willis Adolescent and Adult Services at 6101 Idlewild Road in Charlotte, carried out the scheme from 2007 to 2010, according to the US Attorney.

Thursday, she pleaded guilty to three separate criminal counts, all of which relate to a health care fraud scheme alleged in the November indictment, according to the US Attorney. According to official court documents, from 2007 to 2010 Willis falsely billed the North Carolina Medical Assistance Program (Medicaid), for behavioral therapy services which she did not provide and which were not eligible for reimbursement, according to the US Attorney.

Related: Read the Bill of Indictment (pdf document)

According to the indictment, in or about 2008, Willis, a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor who started got her licence in April 2006, " began to abuse drugs, including crack cocaine, and alcohol again."

Those problems, the indictment says " eventually prevented her from providing counseling services to any patients." Authorities say that she had also been addicted to substances in the 1990s.

The indictment alleges that Willis used "the proceeds of her scheme to defraud Medicaid to purchase personal vehicles," including a 2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur, a 2007 Hummer H2 and a 2007 Dodge Charger SE.

Federal officials also allege that Willis used funds to pay for personal spa services, lodging, room service and entertainment at the Ballantyne Resort and the Ritz Carlton.

During the course of the investigation of Willis, the United States Secret Service seized the following property for forfeiture to the United States:

• $193,283.71 in funds

• 2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur

• 2007 Hummer H2

• 2002 Cadillac Escalade

• 2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

• 2007 Dodge Charger

Willis also agreed to pay full restitution and to the forfeiture to the government of any assets listed in the Bill of Indictment or seized in a related investigation

With the guilty plea, Willis faces a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years of imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, or both, with regard to each of the federal criminal counts to which she pleaded guilty, the US Attorney said.

Willis has been in federal custody since March 2010.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelli Ferry of the U.S. Attorney's Charlotte Office.

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