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By Chuck Strouse
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By Michael E. Miller
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If you drive from Miami up to Surfside and park in the shade of a certain palm tree near the fashionable Bal Harbour Shops, you can watch Leon Weinstein coming home to his bungalow at midday. He appears in a heat shimmer at one end of Carlyle Street with Peppi, a little dog of indeterminate breed with bulging, solicitous eyes. Man, slightly bowlegged, is careful not to overtake beast, who pants and waddles faster and faster as the pair nears home. Peppi wears rolls of fat under his fur coat; Weinstein, fresh from his morning tennis game, wears a Polo shirt, white shorts, and sneakers. It's a vision of happy retirement years in a quiet corner of Florida's Gold Coast: The 59-year-old Weinstein, strolling home with his companion, looks vaguely foolish and utterly relaxed, two states of being he hasn't often known. Here is a man getting used to a $2000-per-month pension, not yet comfortable with Polo shirts and tennis and sunny subtropical indolence.
Inside Weinstein's modest one-story house, you see bookshelves lined with pet-care manuals. A mother cat convalesces with her kitten in one bedroom, recovering from an operation. Peppi disappears from view, and another dog starts barking from behind an unseen door. Is Weinstein the cat lover in the family? "If it was up to me, they'd all be out of here tomorrow," he says, pouring himself a soda. Is he, then, the dog lover? "I love my wife," he says matter-of-factly. "And she's crazy about dogs. I can take 'em or leave 'em." Up close, Weinstein is a gnome with a good tan and a jack-o'-lantern face - rosy cheeks, big jaw, pointy ears, gaps between his top front teeth, flickering, blue-gray eyes. A big stainless steel diver's watch encircles one wrist, the phosphorescent hands glowing dimly in the shadows of the living room. When you first sit down with him, you're likely to be distracted from examining his physical appearance; the great Bronx music of his voice grabs your attention, churns the air around him, rising to surprising heights, then plunging to near-whispers. He's so animated, choosing his words well and gesticulating often with his arms, that it's some time before you notice the broad delta of worry lines spreading out from his eyes.
The worry lines grew slowly out of a career of scrutiny and suspicion. For 34 years Weinstein labored in the lower echelons of that biggest of all federal bureaucracies, the Department of Health and Human Services. In 1955 he began evaluating Social Security applications from an office on 125th Street in New York City, back when Harlem was still a place where you could take a bag lunch to the park. In 1989 he retired in Miami as a senior special agent in the department's Office of the Inspector General, having spent more than a decade here chasing unscrupulous South Florida doctors through a maze of computer files and audits and paper trails to develop Medicare fraud cases against them. His efforts in sending corrupt physicians to prison won him a commendation from Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti in 1977 and another from FBI Director William Sessions in 1988. "We've never encountered anything like Leon," says a Miami lawyer who uses Weinstein's consulting services. "His area of law enforcement is extremely complex and specialized, and he's simply the best there is at it." Says a former colleague, who still works for the Department of Health and Human Services: "Leon thought he was God's gift to the criminal investigative field. He was a goddamn prima donna. But I won't say he didn't know what he was doing. The truth is, he was good."
These days Weinstein isn't just playing tennis, and his memories of an honorable civil service career are more rancorous than they might have been had he left government work a few years earlier. Since leaving the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Weinstein has persisted in claiming that his old bosses in the inspector general's office concealed evidence and obstructed justice in cases involving millions of dollars of Medicare fraud. Without solid proof, but with an alarmingly plausible set of speculations, Weinstein contends that Inspector General Richard P. Kusserow and then-Regional Inspector General Robert A. Simon blocked his efforts to pursue major medical fraud in South Florida. Weinstein's theory of motive: White House officials persuaded Kusserow to conceal an elaborate scheme involving a Miami hospital that treated wounded Nicaraguan contra soldiers.
Under the provisions of an obscure Civil War-era law, Weinstein as a private citizen has filed lawsuits against more than 50 South Florida health care providers, seeking to recover for the U.S. government an estimated $118 million he says doctors and clinic workers stole from taxpayers through false billing and other illegal practices. So far three of Weinstein's lawsuits have been settled, and at least $540,000 has been returned to federal coffers. Weinstein's lawyers expect two more settlements in the next month to raise that figure to at least one million dollars.
The False Claims Act, created in 1863 to discourage fraud by suppliers of war goods, was amended by Congress in 1986 to allow virtually anyone who discovers or suspects government fraud to sue - and to share in up to 25 percent of the monetary recovery from any successful outcome. Often the lawsuits emanate from workers in the defense industry who catch their bosses or fellow employees cheating on government contracts. Assistant Attorney General Stuart Gerson, who last year called the revised False Claims Act "the government's primary weapon in fighting fraud," notes that since 1986 more than ten percent of the fraud recoveries by the government have been due to private citizens who filed lawsuits. Of $70 million recovered, about $9 million has gone to the citizens who initiated the actions. In an order entitling Leon Weinstein to five percent of the proceeds in one settlement, Chief U.S. District Judge Lawrence King wrote in August 1990: "Ultimately, what appears to have happened in this case is, after seeing no effective action taken by the government, [Weinstein] filed the suit. This appears to be exactly what Congress intended [by its 1986 amendment of the False Claims Act].... The $160,000 settlement may never have been reached but for [Weinstein] filing the...action."