Local 2 Investigates: Inside undercover insurance sting
An investigation spanning nearly two years leads to criminal charges against a Houston attorney, chiropractor and a third man.
Detectives with the Houston Police Department's Major Offenders division said the investigation was launched because of a tip regarding questionable insurance claims.
"We had numerous referrals involving this provider and attorney," said Louis Campbell, a supervisory agent with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
"And referrals mean?" asked Local 2 investigator Robert Arnold.
"Referrals being questionable activity," Campbell said.
Campbell said officials with the NICB then contacted the Houston Police Department and Harris County District Attorney's Office. Police said the investigation began with undercover detectives identifying and approaching a man by the name of Yosef Gebremicael. Court documents obtained by Local 2 state Gebremicael was a "runner." Court records describe a runner as "a person who acts as a solicitor for personal injury attorneys and medical treatment providers."
With hidden cameras rolling, two detectives approached Gebremicael posing as two people who had been involved in a hit-and-run accident and were looking to "make some money," according to court documents.
Police gave Local 2 copies of excerpts of the hidden camera footage taken during the course of the investigation.
The first meeting between Gebremicael and the detectives took place inside a car in the parking lot of a southwest Houston gas station.
"Has the insurance fixed your car yet, or no?" Gebremicael is heard asking the detectives on the video.
"No," the officer said.
"Not yet?" Gebremicael asked.
"No," the officer said.
According to court records, during this meeting, Gebremicael had what appeared to be "paperwork" for Houston attorney, Patricia Azinge, and chiropractor, Omid Soltani.
"The doctor got to have some paper like this, I'll fill it out for you," Gebremicael is heard telling the detectives.
"You just need to visit the doctor one time," Gebremicael is heard telling the detectives late in the conversation.
"That's all?" the officer asked.
"Yeah, unless you need treatment," said Gebremicael.
"Cool," the officer said.
"When you sign the papers you act like you been there 20, 30 times. It don't matter, but you got to go there and sign the paper one time," Gebremicael is heard telling the officers.
"Oh, OK," the officer said.
"That way he can tell you what kind of treatment you been getting," said Gebremicael.
Police said they then visited Soltani and filled out paperwork. From there detectives said they met with Azinge to file an insurance claim. Undercover video shows Azinge sat with the officer as he filed his claim over the phone with an insurance adjuster.
"Did you use insurance? Did you send a bill to your home?" the adjuster is heard asking the officer while Azinge can be seen shaking her head no.
Court records read Azinge "assisted and coached" the undercover detective during the phone call. Detectives said the insurance adjuster on the phone was aware an undercover operation was taking place.
"How's your pain level before you went to the chiro? What would you say your pain level was then?" the adjuster is heard asking the detective.
Before the officer answered the question, Azinge is seen on the video appearing to hold up her fingers to indicate a number to the officer.
"Before, probably about a seven or eight," the officer answered.
The video then showed what appeared to be Azinge smiling and giving the officer a high-five. Court records read Azinge then filed a more than $36,000 insurance claim asking for "attorney fees," "medical expenses" and "pain and suffering."
Just before police finished their undercover work, they paid Soltani one last visit. Detectives said they went back to Soltani pretending to want to be a part of future insurance claims.
"I just wanted to make sure you know I'm cool," the detective is heard telling Soltani during a meeting at his clinic.
"You got be careful who you bring in," Soltani is heard telling the officer.
"So I just bring everybody to you?" the officer then asked.
"Yeah, that way if I get a percentage from that attorney I sent to them, I'll say, 'Hey, you take your percentage,'" said Soltani.
Immediately following this meeting with the undercover detective, Soltani was arrested and charged with insurance fraud.
Local 2 tried to speak with Soltani.
"You don't want to answer any questions? You don't want to respond to the charges against you?" Arnold asked.
"Not right now," Soltani said.
Gebremicael was also charged with insurance fraud. His attorney, Feroz Merchant, declined comment on his client's behalf.
Azinge was charged with barratry, which is defined under the law as illegal solicitation of clients.
"Would you like to respond to the allegations that have been made against you?" Arnold asked Azinge following her recent court appearance.
"Not at this time," said Azinge.
Azinge's attorney also declined comment. All three cases are being handled by a special prosecutor with the Texas Department of Insurance, which has been permanently assigned to the Harris County District Attorney's Office.
"Fraud affects everyone," prosecutor Jesse McClure told Local 2 Investigates.
McClure spoke in generalities rather than specifically about the cases against Azinge, Soltani and Gebremicael. McClure said TDI decided to assign him the District Attorney's Office since insurance fraud has become such a problem in Harris County. McClure said there is also a special prosecutor based in Dallas and San Antonio.
"Unfortunately, we have a lot of medical providers and, unfortunately, a lot of attorneys who are all too willing to participate in this kind of fraud," said McClure.
The NICB reports that Harris County is fourth in country when it comes to fraudulent claims filed regarding vehicle accidents. Campbell said insurance companies Farmers, The Hartford, Geico, Nationwide and Texas Farm Bureau lent resources and helped with the investigation involving Azinge, Soltani and Gebremicael.
The NICB estimated that people pay an average of $360 a year extra in premiums to cover the cost of fraudulent claims.
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477).
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