Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Continuing Mystery of the Fugitive Founder and Missing Money - What it Says About the Opacity of Offshore Medical Schools

The next chapter in the bizarre tale of the fugitive founder of an off-shore (from the US and Canada) Caribbean medical school, and his now convicted spouse, do not solve any mysteries, but raise larger concerns about the accountability, or lack thereof, of leaders of important health care organizations.

Introduction: the Fugitive Founder and Convicted Spouse

As we posted in October, 2013, drawing an amazing for us number of comments, the couple who founded two Caribbean medical schools which catered almost entirely to US and Canadian students ran into significant legal trouble.  Founder David Leon Fredrick and his wife, Dr Patricia Lynn Hough were indicted for tax evasion for failing to report income from the two medical schools they allegedly owned, and later sold.

The schools were Saba University School of Medicine, on Saba, and the Medical University of the Americas, on Nevis.  The initial legal proceedings revealed that while Saba University School of Medicine was apparently first set up by a non-profit foundation (or NGO) run by the couple, somehow it became for-profit owned by Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough, and Saba and the Medical University of the Americas were subsequently sold to a private equity group, Equinox Capital.

Before jury selection started, Mr Fredrick disappeared.  Dr Hough was eventually convicted of defrauding the US Internal Revenue Service, and income tax evasion, after trial testimony to the effect that the couple concealed money in a Swiss bank, got $36 million from the sale of the schools, and bought an airplane, two houses, and a condominium.

Left mysterious at that time were Mr Fredrick's whereabouts, where the money that the couple derived from the sale of the medical schools went, and how a school that began as a non-profit organization became a for-profit corporation owned by the couple.  The case should have lead to some concerns about the leadership and governance of the off-shore medical schools that now train increasing numbers of would be US and Canadian physicians.

However, after Dr Hough was convicted, there was little public discussion of these issues, at least until Dr Hough's recent sentencing.  (There were some interesting comments made on our blog post, many from anonymous erswhile defenders of Saba University and/or Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough.  While they expressed some interesting opinions, in my humble opinion they did not add any substantive facts to the discussion.)

Latest Developments in the Case

In the past few weeks the case got a little more public notice in terms of reporting of the legal proceedings leading to the sentencing of Dr Hough   They brought to light some additional contentions by the prosecution, which deserve some attention because after all, they won their case.

The Amount of Money the Couple Made


As reported by the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune,  Dr Hough was sentenced to two years in federal prison, three years of supervised release, and to repay $15 million to the IRS.  In addition,

 Prosecutors say Hough and Fredrick sold the schools and associated real estate in April 2007 for more than $35 million. An IRS agent testified last Thursday that Hough also made more than $12 million in income from the two schools from 2003 until 2007.

How much Mr Fredrick made was not discussed since it was not relevant to Dr Hough's sentencing. 

The Effort that Went into the Plot

According to Bloomberg,

'Hough’s crimes were neither impulsive nor isolated but required sophisticated transactions, coordination with foreign bankers, annual lies to the federal government, and by her own admissions, trips to Switzerland,' prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo on April 14. 'Hough made calculated decisions to cheat, over and over again.'

Also,

Prosecutors accused the couple of crafting their scheme with UBS AG (UBSN) banker Dieter Luetolf and Swiss financial adviser Beda Singenberger, both unindicted co-conspirators.

Singenberger, who was separately charged with helping 60 U.S. clients hide $184 million in offshore accounts, hasn’t responded in federal court in New York.

In more detail,

Prosecutors said the couple used an array of accounts in the names of businesses to hide their money and employed 'e-mails, telephone calls and in-person meetings to instruct Swiss bankers and asset managers to make investments and transfer funds from their undeclared accounts at UBS.'

The Mysteries Remain



Where Did the Money Go?

As noted above, the sale of the two medical schools netted Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough about $35 million.  Where that went is still unclear.

How Did Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough Become Owners of a Previously Non-Profit Medical School?

As noted above and in our previous post, Saba University School of Medicine began as a non-profit managed by Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough.  Somewhere along the way, the couple assumed ownership of the school.  There seems to be no record and no discussion of how this happened.  In the US, a conversion of a substantial non-profit, like a medical school, to a for-profit, ordinarily would require some regulatory approval and public discussion.  Furthermore, in most cases, non-profit conversions to for-profit would require some sort of protection of the assets of the former non-profit, often leading to a spin-off of a new non-profit foundation.   None of this apparently happened in this case (which admittedly did not occur in the US.)  How did Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough just take over a non-profit, sell it, and keep all the money involved?

Where is Mr Fredrick and Why did He Flee?

We need Sherlock Holmes for this. 


What Does This Case Say About the Leadership and Governance of Offshore Medical Schools?

So the latest details revealed suggest a fairly intricate plot by the American couple who founded two Caribbean medical schools.  The plot allegedly netted them millions, and now resulted in one of the couple remaining a fugitive, and the other convicted of federal crimes.

The biggest issue raised by this case, in my humble opinion, is not about financial crimes, tax-evasion, or the hiding of assets in Swiss banks.  It is about the leadership and governance of offshore Caribbean medical schools, and by extension, of academic medicine and health care.  In 2010, Eckhert documented that the number of offshore medical schools, "for-profit institutions whose purpose is to train U.S. and Canadian students who intend to return home to practice," but not to train physicians to practice in the countries in which these schools are located, was rapidly growing.(1)  By 2010, there were 33 such schools, 20 of which were new since 2000.

These offshore medical schools are not accredited in the US or Canada, and such accreditation is currently not required for individual graduates of such schools to be admitted to US house-staff programs or for US licensure.  So perhaps it is not surprising that little is known about these schools.

How they choose students, the qualifications, or even names of their faculty, their curriculum, how they supervise clinical training (which is mostly done by affiliated North American hospitals), and what happens to their graduates are boscure.  Eckhert attempted to describe what is known, but noted "variability exists in the availability of information on faculty; where data exists, it is noted that most of the permanent on-site basic science faculty are internationally trained, many have no documented medical education experience in the United States, and it is not uncommon for them to be OMS [offshore medical school] alumni."

Even less is known about who leads these schools, who if anyone is responsible for their stewardship, and even who owns them.  The current case suggests that Saba University School of Medicine was run by couple who mysteriously assumed ownership of the school after leading it as a non-profit organization, then sold it to private equity for millions in a transaction that eventually left one a convicted criminal and the other a fugitive.  Yet none of this came to light until the federal government launched an investigation not of offshore medical schools, but of offshore money laundering and happened to catch the couple in the investigational web. No regulatory process, no watchdog organization in the US or Canada, or on Saba apparently found this out until it was revealed in an investigation by the US federal government that had nothing specifically to do with health care or offshore medical schools.  This suggests that offshore medical schools now can be lead and run by anyone, qualified or not, honest or criminal, without any oversight or accountability.  

For example, even today little is known about the leadership of Saba University School of Medicine.  The school currently provides only minimal biographical information on its administration.  Its President is listed as Joseph Chu MD MPH, who appears to have the same educational credentials (MD from Georgetown, MPH from University as Washington) as one Joseph Chu who is apparently a Clinical Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Washington.   Dr Chu's specialty and previous experience are not apparent.  Whether the Dr Chu at University of Washington is the same as the President of Saba is unclear.  If they are the same, how Dr Chu holds down these two jobs is not clear.

For comparison, most US schools provide extensive information about their leadership.  Just as an example, see the introductory page on the Dean of the University Washington medical school.

Even less is known about the stewardship or governance of Saba University School of Medicine.  Many US medical schools have their own boards of trustees who are supposed to provide stewardship. For example, the UW board is here.  Their membership is generally known.  Furthermore, most US medical schools report to university leadership, again whose identity is known, and are subject to governance by a university board of trustees.  We have certainly criticized the leadership and governance of US academic medicine.  At least, however, it is possible to find out the names of the people responsible. 

However, while Saba University School of Medicine is still apparently owned by Equinox Capital according to the latter's website, to whom Dr Chu reports at Equinox Capital is unclear.  Whether Saba has a board of trustees, or any such similar stewardship mechanism, is unclear.  So who is ultimately accountable for Saba is unclear.  Probably just as unclear is who leads, who stewards, and who is accountable for the leadership of most other offshore medical schools.

While Eckhert wrote in 2010 that the increasing presence of offshore medical graduates in the US "obligates U.S. medicine to take a closer look at these educational programs," no such scrutiny has occurred since then.  While offshore medical schools account for the training of an increasing proportion of US (and presumably Canadian) physicians, we know next to nothing about their leadership and governance.  This seems to be just another part of the decreasing accountability of the leadership of US health care, and the increasing opacity of the governance and stewardship of US health care organizations.  True US health care reform would make leadership transparent and accountable.         

Reference
 1.  Eckhert NL.  Private schools of the Caribbean: outsourcing medical education.  Acad Med 1010; 85: 622-630.  Link here

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