Advertising That Pays
By Francis X. Gilpin
Retired Hillsborough County sheriff's Deputy Joseph C. Greco Jr. and Tampa private detective Steven C. Prevatt presented themselves as an advertising resource for chiropractors and personal-injury lawyers.
Insurance-fraud investigators for Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher say the two men were steering injured motorists to medical clinics and law offices in exchange for thousands of dollars in kickbacks.
Two years ago, Greco and Prevatt signed up a chiropractor for their service, according to court records. Unfortunately for them, this chiropractor was wearing a hidden FBI microphone.
In March, Greco, 43, of Lutz, and Prevatt, 45, of Tampa, were arrested on felony charges of patient brokering. State investigators used evidence gathered from FBI-monitored controlled calls made by the unnamed chiropractor, who appears to be Wendell M. Underwood.
But the Greco case has fallen apart, and Prevatt appears likely to face a reduced charge, if he is tried at all.
Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark A. Ober has dropped the charge against Greco, citing ambiguities in state law and the accidental erasure by Gallagher's investigators of a surreptitiously recorded tape that was seen as crucial to the case.
Greco now says he got caught up in the patient-brokering probe only because Gallagher sought attention for what has become an inept effort to burnish the CFO's fraud-fighting credentials for his 2006 gubernatorial bid.
"The only reason I appear in those police reports is to get them some publicity and help the dog-and-pony show for Gallagher's election campaign," Greco told the Review. "Why would they drag me into this? I used to be in law enforcement. I used to do dog-and-pony shows."
Greco belittles Gallagher's insurance-fraud sleuths as "pseudo investigators."
Nina Banister, a spokeswoman for Gallagher, says Florida's insurance-fraud investigators are national leaders in obtaining convictions of those they arrest. "I don't think 'pseudo investigators' would do that," Banister told the Review.
Gallagher's office called a news conference to announce the arrests of Greco and others because there were so many suspects and the CFO considers auto insurance fraud to be one of the biggest problems facing his office, according to Banister.
"No political reasons here," says Banister.
Still, court and other records of the case provide an inside look at how a cottage industry has sprung up around the misery of auto collisions. Gallagher says chiropractors, lawyers and private detectives are ripping off insurers, who may be paying for needless litigation and medical care.
Down on 'government work'
Greco, son of a former county tax collector and Tampa city councilman, landed a job as a jail guard in 1989 with the sheriff's office. From the jail, Greco moved to the streets where he became a deputy in 1992. Greco retired from the sheriff's office 10 years later.
In a 2003 conversation recorded by the FBI, Greco didn't speak fondly of his years with the sheriff's office: "Five percent of nothing is nothing, and it's government work."
State investigators say Greco went to work for Prevatt, an old friend who ran two companies called Attorney Hotline Referral Service Inc. and Community Services Bulletins Inc.
But Greco denies that. "I wasn't involved with Prevatt at all," Greco told the Review.
Attorney Hotline Referral Service handed out cards with a toll-free telephone number for lawyer referrals. Prevatt told chiropractor Underwood that lawyers paid him a referral fee and later split any court settlements.
Prevatt named one of those lawyers as Kenneth W. Mastrilli. A federal jury in Tampa convicted Mastrilli, 49, of defrauding the government in a disability case last year. He was sentenced in May to house arrest and ordered to pay $43,000 in fines and restitution.
With the calling cards, Prevatt told Underwood that he didn't consider his alleged patient-brokering methods to be improper for attorneys to use. "We don't get into any implication of fee splitting or solicitation or any sort of thing like that," Prevatt is quoted by state investigators as telling Underwood. "The way I was trained to do this business is all within the guidelines for solicitation."
As Prevatt pair callers with lawyers, he also verified insurance coverage and sent to chiropractors those accident victims who weren't at fault and had low or no deductibles on their policies. The chiropractors pre-paid for their referrals, Prevatt told Underwood.
"Typically, all fees are paid up front," Prevatt told Underwood. "That way, there is no indication that there was a fee arrangement setup."
Prevatt bragged about his production. "If I had a good run and piled 20 files on you in two weeks," he told Underwood, "I'd be looking at $10,000 or $15,000, and you'd be going, 'holy shit.'"
'Marketing,' not brokering
Greco is quoted by state investigators as telling Underwood that he and Prevatt also found accident victims by posting notices in Laundromats and other public places through Community Services Bulletins.
Prevatt saw himself as a marketing alternative for lawyers and clinic owners, rather than a broker of crash victims for them.
As an example, Prevatt was recorded telling Underwood how he would work with a PI attorney who wanted 10 clients. Whereas finding that many clients could cost $20,000 in Yellow Pages ads, Prevatt says: "I'll do it for $10,000. I'll bring you in 10 pre-qualified, set-up perfect good investigative cases.
"They spend their advertising dollars with me as opposed to dropping it into some sort of printed advertising program."
With money supplied by Gallagher's investigators, Underwood paid Greco $2,000 in April 2003, according to state records. In exchange, Greco delivered two injured patients - literally, driving them to a St. Petersburg clinic for Underwood.
In June 2003, Prevatt collected another $2,000 check from Underwood for two more patients. When Underwood asked what to jot down on the check, Prevatt gave him a choice: "marketing" or "advertising."
Bank records subpoenaed by the state show Prevatt gave Greco $2,350 of the $4,000 that he'd accepted from Underwood.
Greco told the Review that he was merely doing a favor for Prevatt by picking up checks from Underwood. "I wasn't involved," says Greco. "The very intelligent state attorney's office of Hillsborough County recognized that."
State investigators say Prevatt and Greco, who had some undercover experience with the sheriff's office, eventually figured out that they were targets of a law enforcement sting.
PI lawyer Mastrilli read in a newspaper about a federal indictment in which Underwood was accused of paying kickbacks for patients from a local postal union. State records show Mastrilli confronted Prevatt, who defended Underwood.
Underwood, whose office phone is disconnected, couldn't be reached for comment. Mastrilli didn't return a call to his Tampa office at the Personal Injury Law Center PA.
By the summer of 2003, Greco was through taking chances with Underwood. Greco hung up on him and called back to leave a message with the chiropractor's office: "No contact and no more controlled calls."
Rain is good
Slick roads are good for business, if you're a broker of traffic crash victims to chiropractors and lawyers.
Steven C. Prevatt, who was charged with patient brokering earlier this year, was overhead by the FBI welcoming a spate of wet days in June 2003. "I had good luck the last week or so because there was rainy weather," said Prevatt.
It was even better later that month when a West Tampa automobile crash occurred right in front of Prevatt business associate Joseph C. Greco Jr.
The quick-thinking Greco, a witness to the accident, handed a business card to the driver who wasn't at fault.
The next day, according to state records, the driver called Greco, who put him in touch with Prevatt clients in the legal and medical professions.