3 ex-Suns among former NBA players charged in scheme to defraud league health care plan

Sebastian Telfair, the New York playground legend who was a point guard for the Phoenix Suns from 2011-13, was among 18 former NBA players indicted on health care fraud charges Thursday. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Nineteen people, including three former Suns players, were indicted on health care fraud charges in New York on Thursday after they were charged with conspiring to defraud the NBA’s Health and Welfare Benefit Plan of nearly $4 million.

Sebastian Telfair, Shannon Brown and Milt Palacio were among the 18 ex-NBA players arrested, as well as former University of Arizona player Will Bynum.

Palacio played for the Suns for part of the 2001-02 season, while Telfair and Brown competed together in Phoenix from 2011 to 2013. Telfair was a highly touted prospect out of high school, but has faced numerous legal issues following his time in the NBA.

Among the other former NBA players charged are Glen Davis and Tony Allen, both players on the 2008 Boston Celtics championship team. Allen’s wife, Desiree, was also charged in the scheme.

The benefit plan provides additional coverage on top of existing medical coverage for eligible NBA players and their families.

“The additional coverage is provided to both active and former players. The plan is primarily funded by contributions from NBA teams,” said Audrey Strauss, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “The plan reimburses medical expenses, but it does not permit players to be reimbursed for services they never received.”

But, officials said, that was the intention of this scheme. The indictment alleges that former first round pick Terrence Williams spearheaded the fraudulent plan, in which the defendants submitted claims worth about $4 million to the NBA for medical and dental services they never received. As a part of this plan, Williams received kickbacks that totaled at least $230,000, according to authorities.

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Strauss said Williams obtained fraudulent medical and dental invoices and sent those to the former players. The players then submitted the claims to the NBA. The league, unaware that the claims were fraudulent, paid most of the claims. Following this payment, players paid kickbacks to Williams.

Strauss said the scheme began around November 2017. She added that travel records, emails, GPS data and other evidence obtained by the FBI showed that defendants were often nowhere near providers’ offices on the dates they claimed to receive treatment.

All 19 are charged with conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud. Williams is also charged with aggravated identity theft. As of Thursday afternoon, 16 of the 18 accused players had been taken into custody, according to NBC News, which first reported the charges. The NBA in a statement called the allegations “particularly disheartening” and said the league is cooperating with federal investigators.

“Today we’ve charged 18 former NBA players and one spouse for their alleged participation in a health care fraud scheme that resulted in nearly $2 million in losses to the (NBA’s) Health and Welfare Benefit Plan,” said Michael J. Driscoll, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York field office. “Cases like this demonstrate our continued focus in uncovering health care fraud scams that harm both the industry and the consumers of their services.”

According to the indictment, the athletes’ scheme was littered with red flags, including documents from players in different cities claiming to have undergone the exact same dental procedures on the same teeth on the same days. The fake invoices raised attention because “they are not on letterhead, they contain unusual formatting (and) they have grammatical errors,” according to investigators.

“The defendants’ playbook involved fraud and deception,” Strauss said. “Their alleged scheme has been disrupted and they will have to answer for their flagrant violations of law.”

Abby Sharpe abb-ee sh-ar-p (she/her)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Abby Sharpe expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sharpe, who has covered sports for Cronkite News, Inferno Intel and as a freelancer, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.