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Heart surgeon who tricked patients and bilked insurers out of millions gets 7 years in prison

Moses deGraft-Johnson, a one-time jet-setting heart surgeon who walked away with millions of dollars for medical procedures he never performed, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker imposed the punishment during a hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in Tallahassee. Walker also ordered him to pay $28.4 million in restitution — the same amount he bilked from the government and private insurers.

DeGraft-Johnson, a Ghana native who came to America as a child and rose to prominence in the medical world, was indicted in February 2020 on 58 counts of health-care fraud. He was accused of ripping off Medicare, Blue Cross Blue Shield and others by billing for expensive procedures he never performed on his underprivileged patients.

Federal prosecutors alleged he also subjected his patients to unwarranted angiograms, a diagnostic procedure requiring an injection, though his defense lawyers contested that. Walker ruled that deGraft-Johnson in fact performed such procedures but that the risk of harm to patients was minimal.

The Heart and Vascular Institute of North Florida, the office of Dr. Moses deGraft-Johnson, located on Centennial Boulevard. A federal grand jury indicted Dr. Moses deGraft-Johnson on numerous health-care fraud charges.

Under federal guidelines, deGraft-Johnson faced a sentencing range between roughly 22 and 27 years in prison, plus an additional two years. However, prosecutors said he deserved a downward departure from the guidelines.

Walker agreed, citing his cooperation with the government, his otherwise clean record and the “collateral damage” he and his family have already experienced.

DeGraft-Johnson surrendered his medical licenses after he pleaded guilty last year. He was forced to sell off expensive properties in New York City, the Hamptons and Miami. His children have suffered setbacks in school since his arrest, he and his wife both told the judge.

Back story:

“I wrestled with this case,” Walker said. “There are certainly significant aggravators in this case — the duration of the fraud and the scope of this fraud. There’s just no getting around it.”

DeGraft-Johnson, wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, acknowledged his guilt as he stood before Walker and gave a final statement. He said he could not, however, offer an explanation for what he did.

“I take full responsibility,” he said. “I did wrong. All I can say is I’m very sorry. Somehow I took a detour and ended up where I am.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said that deGraft-Johnson performed hundreds of “unnecessary and invasive” procedures for nearly four years and created false and misleading medical records that could cause other doctors to pursue a “mistaken course of medical treatment.

“This physician compromised the health and safety of his patients in favor of illegal profit,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jason Coody said in a prepared statement. “His acts not only violated the law, but the trust of his patients.”

Judge: deGraft-Johnson ‘squandered’ the American dream

DeGraft-Johnson and his family, who have distant connections to national leadership in Ghana, left the country in the 1980s amid political strife and settled in Texas. His parents were pastors; two of his three siblings became doctors and the other a nurse, his lawyer, Mark O’Mara of Orlando, wrote in recent court filings.

He performed the first open heart surgery in the Virgin Islands and reportedly saved the life of rapper 50 Cent after he was shot in 2000 in New York City. He joined Capital Regional Medical Center’s staff in 2014, working as an independent doctor, and opened his own business, the Heart and Vascular Center of North Florida.

“While (he) understands that his behavior in the instance case paints him in a poor light, he wants the court to understand that for the majority of his medical career he gave all of himself to those who entrusted him with their care,” O’Mara wrote.

His mother and older brother, Dr. John deGraft-Johnson, also gave testimonials, talking about their struggles as an immigrant family and how they achieved their goals through hard work. His brother, overcome by emotion, said he would trade places with him if he could.

“Judge, I just ask that you look at the totality of who he is and that he has a family that loves him,” his brother said.

Walker said the defendant’s crimes started with him “playing God” and continued because of hubris and greed.

“His family described the American dream,” Walker said. “And he squandered it.”

Kimberly Austin, a former office manager at the Heart and Vascular Institute, was charged along with deGraft-Johnson on a single conspiracy count. She pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to just over a year in federal prison.

DeGraft-Johnson’s charges were the result of an investigation by a number of federal and state agencies, including the FBI, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Florida Attorney General’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Grogan prosecuted the case.

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