Two Bloomberg articles on a trial underway focused on the alleged use of offshore accounts to avoid US taxes. These accounts were connected to the former long-term President and founder of two offshore medical schools, and his spouse, a dean at one of the schools.
The first Bloomberg article opened thus:
Patricia Hough, according to her lawyers, is an altruistic psychiatrist who helped her husband build two Caribbean medical schools. To prosecutors, she is a tax cheat who used offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes on millions of dollars from the schools’ sale.
Jury selection began today in federal court in Fort Myers, Florida, where Hough, 67, is accused of using accounts at UBS AG, the largest Swiss bank, and elsewhere to hide assets and income from the Internal Revenue Service, including almost $34 million she and her husband made when the schools were sold in 2007.
The Bloomberg article asserted,
At the heart of the case is whether she misused accounts associated with the Saba University School of Medicine Foundation.
The main question to me is not whether Dr Hough is guilty or innocent, which I cannot tell. There are more intriguing mysteries raised by this case.
How Did Non-Profit Medical Schools Become For-Profit?
According to Bloomberg,
Hough’s lawyers say she helped [her husband, David] Fredrick build Saba University School of Medicine, on the island of Saba in the Netherland Antilles, and the Medical University of the Americas, or MUA, on Nevis in the West Indies.
To do so,
Through the Saba foundation, which they first funded in 1988, according to a government trial brief filed Oct. 3, the couple opened the Saba University School of Medicine in 1993. Fredrick served as president and a foundation director. Hough was associate dean for clinical medicine.
In 1999, Fredrick and Hough began the Medical University of the Americas, a for-profit school on Nevis in the West Indies, according to the government filing.There seems to be no question that the schools were started by a foundation based in the Netherland Antilles. A report of a site visit of the Saba University School of Medicine by the Division of Licensing of the Medical Board of California in 2004 summarized this history,
In 1986, the government of the Netherlands Antilles proposed to a group of American educators that a medical school be established on the small island of Saba, N.A. It was to be relatively small, of high quality and established for the dual ppurpose of benefiting the economy of the island (of only 1500 population) and attracting N.A. citizens to medical careers in the N.A.
A committee of Dutch citizens from Curacao, the seat of the N.A. government, approved the preliminary plans and the school was founded as a non-profit foundation under Dutch law....
The Saba University website still states that the school is accredited in the Netherlands,
Saba University School of Medicine’s Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) program is accredited by the NVAO (in Dutch: Nederlands-Vlaamse Accreditatieorganisatie). The NVAO is the Accreditation Organization of the Netherlands and Flanders. This organization was established by international treaty and ensures the quality of higher education in the Netherlands and Flanders.
So apparently Saba University was started as a non-profit organization meant to focus on medical education for the Netherlands Antilles, and thus accredited there. But then, somehow, according to Bloomberg.
Equinox Capital, a private-equity firm based in Greenwich, Connecticut, bought the Saba school and MUA for $36 million in 2007. The transaction included $34 million for land held in the name of Fredrick’s daughter from an earlier marriage, according to prosecutors.
Hough and Fredrick didn’t tell the IRS about most of the proceeds of the sale and transferred money among various undeclared accounts to buy the plane and real estate, make gifts to family members and pay personal expenses, prosecutors said.
There also seems to be no question that Equinox Capital did buy the schools. The summary of a 2007 press release from the company stated,
Equinox Capital III, L.P. announced that it has completed the recapitalization of Saba University School of Medicine B.V. ('Saba'). Founded in 1986, Saba is a leading for-profit university that awards four-year graduate degrees in Doctors of Medicine (M.D.).
A statement from Prairie Capital, which is now an investor in the schools, noted that now
R3 Education is a Massachusetts-based holding company that controls The Saba University School of Medicine ('Saba'), The Medical University of the Americas ('MUA') and St. Matthew University ("SMU").
Prairie Capital partnered with Equinox Capital to acquire the three universities.
It is enough to cause some dizziness. Let me recap. Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough somehow founded two medical schools apparently under the auspices of a foundation, the Saba University School of Medicine Foundation, which the couple ran. The goal of the foundation was to attract Netherland Antilles citizens to medical careers in the NA. However, the Saba University school became an off-shore facility for US medical students. The two schools were later acquired by Prairie Capital and Equinox Capital, and they are now run as for-profit operations by R3 Education.
So somehow Saba University transitioned from being a non-profit meant to serve the medical education needs of the Netherlands Antilles to a for-profit owned by US private equity firms (and apparently now focused on serving Americans.)
How did that happen? What was the rationale for the change? Did any Dutch authorities consider the implications for their country? Did any American organizations concerned with the quality of education and credentials of US physicians consider the implications?
Where Did the Money Go?
According to Bloomberg, US prosecutors made some striking allegations,
Both the foundation and MUA failed to tell the IRS about accounts held at UBS, Liechtenstein Landesbank and other banks, the U.S. charges.
Singenberger and Luetolf helped the foundation and MUA move money through British Virgin Islands or Hong Kong entities they controlled called Top Fast Finance Ltd., Ample Dynamic Trading Ltd., New Vanguard Holdings Ltd. and Apex Consultants Ltd., according to prosecutors.
'Hough and Fredrick were the beneficial owners of and had signatory authority over all over these accounts and owned and controlled each of them,' prosecutors said in their brief.
The prosecution also alleged that Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough spent the money they allegedly got from selling the two medical schools rather lavishly. Per the second Bloomberg article,
[Prosceutor] Kessler said Hough and her husband used the proceeds of the school sales to buy a $1.6 million airplane, a $1.1 million house in Asheville, North Carolina, a $590,000 house in Greenville, North Carolina, and an $800,000 condominium in Sarasota, Florida. She said they also gave money to relatives.
The prosecutors charged that the money the private equity firms paid went to Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough. But while Mr Fredrick was President of Saba University, and apparently ran the foundation that was supposed to support it, he did not own either. So why would the money go to him, and his wife? If the money did not go to them, where did it go?
As the trial continued, as documented in a second Bloomberg article, Dr Hough's lawyer denied that she got the money,
Dan Saunders, an attorney for Hough, said his client never believed the money held at UBS AG (UBSN), the largest Swiss bank, and in other offshore banks belonged to her. Rather, he said, she thought it belonged to the foundation that ran the schools.
'It wasn’t her money, and she never believed it was,' Saunders said in his opening statement.
If that is true, however, why is money that supposedly belongs to a foundation sitting quietly in a Swiss bank?
Dr Hough's lawyer said,
Saunders said the accounts did serve a business purpose: to protect the assets of their nonprofit foundation from people attempting a hostile takeover.
Hostile takeovers of publicly held corporations do occur, of course. However, how could a hostile takeover of a foundation occur, and who would possibly want or be able to do so?
So thus far, no one has offered a rationale explanation for how the schools were sold, why they were sold, and where the money resulting from the sale went.
Where in the World is Mr Fredrick?
So far, while the defendant is Dr Hough, the role of her husband, Mr Fredrick, apparently the President of Saba University from its founding at least until 2007, seems key. Yet little of the coverage focused on Mr Fredrick. The reason for that suggests the next mystery, per the first Bloomberg article,
Fredrick vanished after the indictment, leaving Hough to face trial alone. U.S. District Judge John Steele, who is overseeing the trial, has declared Fredrick a fugitive.
So why did Mr Fredrick flea, and of course, where did he go?
Obviously, the fact that Mr Fredrick, who was the President of Saba University for many years, chose not to defend himself against charges that he hid the money he somehow obtained from the sale of that and another medical school, but rather fled, suggests that he may not have had a very good defense against those charges. What does that say about the leadership of these medical schools?
So the coverage of this intriguing trial, when added to some other publicly available information, suggests a wealth of mysteries about the founding, current nature, and leadership of two Caribbean medical schools which currently are run as for-profit firms and owned by US private equity firms, and whose student bodies come almost exclusively from the US.
So the really big mysteries are those about the implications for the medical education these schools provide, the students they attract, the physicians who graduate from their programs, the US patients of such physicians, and the US government which largely provides the loans which paid for these students' education (look here).
Despite the extraordinary nature of this case (again, involving the longterm president of an offshore medical school that sought to educate a substantial number of US physicians, and who is now a fugitive from justice), the only interest in it so far seems to be its implications for US prosecutions of hidden offshore accounts.
This case illustrates why we must reexamine our fascination for "market based" approaches to health care, when almost nothing about any part of health care resembles, or could resemble a free market (see this post). We need to make health care more transparent, and shine more sunshine on the nooks and crannies, like off-shore but US corporate owned medical schools. We need to facilitate health care leadership and governance that puts patients' and the public's health first, way ahead of the personal enrichment of the participants.
ADDENDUM (29 October, 2013) - Dr Hough was convicted of defrauding the IRS and income tax evasion, see the Bloomberg article. So far I see no response, certainly no apology or disavowal, by the current managers and owners of the medical school.