By late fall of last year, Michelle was becoming suicidal. Depressed and desperate to kick her alcohol addiction of many years, the Orlando resident picked up the Yellow Pages hoping to find a rehab program that would work this time. One of the first listings was something called "Aaron Alcohol Abuse Addiction Assessment Counseling." Michelle dialed the toll-free telephone number, and a sympathetic voice assured her the Sea Winds Healthcare Services in Miami was the place she'd been searching for. The residential treatment facility would even pay for her plane ticket to Miami. Once there, Michelle was informed, she would begin intensive therapy under medical supervision, all in a sunny setting with a swimming pool and fitness center on the grounds and the beach only a jaunt away -- as long as Michelle's insurance would pay the $400-per-day fee. All across the nation other equally messed-up addicts were calling the same number and deciding to check in to Sea Winds.
Michelle's insurance company agreed to pay, her boss gave her time off, and her husband was relieved. She eagerly settled into the program at Sea Winds, a complex of former apartment buildings on NE 88th Terrace just east of Biscayne Boulevard. Then Michelle discovered a few minor surprises: There was no fitness center, the pool was actually an algae-clogged hazard, and her insurance company was billed $1000 per day instead of $400. Still she believed none of that was as important as her recovery, and she impressed both counselors and peers with her determination. "I was like the alcoholic-patient poster child because I worked so hard," she boasted. "This is very important to me; staying sober is everything."
Just 35 days into her expected six-month stay at Sea Winds, though, Michelle abruptly left the facility. There are wildly conflicting explanations for her departure, some of them coming from her. In an interview a few days after leaving, Michelle accused Sea Winds owner Mohamed Ibrahim of mercilessly booting her into the street because she spoke out against some practices and conditions that had already prompted the resignations of Sea Winds' medical director and clinical director. "I had nowhere to go," she recalled. "I'm in Miami, I don't know anybody, I don't know where to go. I was flipping out, crying, sobbing, scared to death." Former employees and Sea Winds executives helped Michelle find lodging and psychological support and urged her to complain to state licensing authorities. She has since returned to Orlando.
But in a letter faxed to Sea Winds on February 13, Michelle claimed all those stories about her being thrown out were "not true" and were spread by disaffected former associates "out to get" Ibrahim, the facility's owner, who has no clinical or addiction treatment experience. (She also denied speaking to any reporter.)
As contradictory as Michelle's accounts may be, her ordeal has been just one among a growing number of bizarre developments at Sea Winds. Beginning this past December, three other clients, also out-of-towners, were summarily discharged by Ibrahim, against the clinical director's judgment; numerous key staffers were fired or resigned; a lawsuit was filed seeking Sea Winds' immediate closure; complaints poured in to city, county, and state authorities; and the ugly truth about the center emerged: Since its opening in June 2000, Sea Winds had been operating illegally, endangering the lives of its approximately 35 clients and flouting nearly every applicable zoning, permitting, and licensing requirement. So far the center continues to operate, having moved some offices to comply with zoning codes, while lawyers fight off attempts to close it.
It took less than seven months for conditions at Sea Winds to degenerate into a confusing mess, but anyone familiar with the background of Mohamed Ibrahim can't be surprised. A convicted felon and charming con man, Ibrahim's past is one long string of busted business deals, multiple bankruptcies and foreclosures, stiffed contractors, and bank fraud. Yet he remains remarkably unhindered by legal considerations and is constantly acquiring properties and embarking on new business ventures. Among his current enterprises are laundromats, convenience stores, a Montessori school, and rental properties. Ibrahim's foray into the potentially very profitable arena of addiction treatment is relatively recent, just within the past few years. Already, though, federal authorities are demanding that he reimburse Medicare more than six million dollars in overbillings during the operation of three mental-health centers he owns (or owned -- all have been shut down). Sea Winds, not surprisingly, accepts no Medicare patients, only those who have private insurance or pay cash.
"This guy needs to be stopped," warns one former patient who didn't want his name used because he fears for his safety. "He's a psycho, and he's putting the lives of vulnerable people in danger." That sentiment is echoed, often in stronger language, by a host of participants in and observers of Ibrahim's exploits.
The idea for Sea Winds began about a year ago, when three South Florida businessmen looking to open an addiction-rehabilitation center in Miami found out about Ibrahim's NE 88th Terrace apartment buildings. Although in need of extensive renovation, the five partially vacant structures appeared perfect for a residential facility. According to David Shurgin, Jonathan Huttner, and Agop Rustemoglu, Ibrahim promised to effect the necessary remodeling and obtain the pertinent licenses and permits. The four men formed a partnership in May 2000. Shurgin was to be Sea Winds' chief financial officer, Huttner the chief operating officer, Rustemoglu the marketing specialist. All have administrative experience in addiction treatment. Ibrahim was general manager of the limited liability company. His partners insist they had no idea then of the many problems with the property, some virtually unresolvable and complicated by the fact that the facility is located in two separate governmental jurisdictions, part in Miami Shores and part in unincorporated Miami-Dade County. One building in the county had been condemned in 1998 and was in foreclosure. Neither of these matters has been resolved yet.
Furthermore Ibrahim never secured all the required certificates of use or certificates of occupancy. He contends that wasn't his responsibility, though the other three partners disagree. The state Department of Children and Families granted Sea Winds a license to operate a residential drug-treatment facility. Zoning codes, however, forbid drug treatment at that location. Ibrahim earlier had received a special dispensation from the Miami Shores Village Council to open a day-care center there, but instead the drug-treatment center appeared. (Across the street Ibrahim operates a Montessori school on land not zoned for a school that also was granted dispensation by the council.)
Shurgin and Huttner hired qualified counselors and medical professionals to staff Sea Winds; most had previous work experience in reputable addiction programs. By all accounts the center ran smoothly at the beginning, ably filling what seemed to be a relentless demand from America's drug dependents. "People would get on the plane drunk and fly down," says former case manager Kimberly Heeney.
Still some parents were bothered by idea of addicts hanging out only a few yards from toddlers. (The Montessori school occupied the same building as Sea Winds' administrative offices.) "I think we got a complaint," remembers Miami Shores city attorney Richard Sarafan. "Inspectors went out and determined that yes, indeed, the same guy we bent over backwards for to give him the nursery he wanted had surreptitiously converted it into a drug-treatment clinic. He didn't get any certificate of occupancy from the [city], and our code expressly prohibits drug-treatment clinics in this zoning district."
A series of citations followed, which Ibrahim fought by filing a lawsuit claiming Miami Shores was illegally reneging on its promises to him. After months of hearings, Ibrahim agreed in late January 2001 to move the drug-treatment program and administrative offices outside village limits.
By fall 2000 weird things began to happen at Sea Winds -- like the armed men who showed up from time to time. "My first day at work, which was Thanksgiving, a Cuban man drove up and said, Tell your boss I'm gonna kill him if he doesn't pay me,'" recalls Sophia Fulton, a driver and technician who was fired in early January 2001. "There was some guy sleeping outside in his car for a while with a gun on the dashboard." Other employees say they "constantly" encountered angry vendors demanding payment for services previously rendered. Utilities would periodically be off for hours at a time. After the chef was fired, residents' meals were catered by a cook at Camillus House, the homeless shelter.
Then some paychecks bounced. Staffers tell of banks refusing to cash their checks or of having to try several times before getting the cash in hand. Several ex-employees assert they never received their final paycheck. Fulton, a recovering addict herself who had graduated from a different local rehab program, says she had constant paycheck problems. "My first check no one would cash," she reports. "I called the police on January 8 because they'd put a stop-payment on another check. [An office assistant] met me at the bank and cashed that check for me. My last check [for less than $300] bounced. I'm going to small-claims court; I need that money even if it isn't that much."
By December the facility's clinical and medical directors had become concerned about what they considered a life-and-death matter -- detoxification, and the fact that Sea Winds still had not received a detox license from the state Department of Children and Families. "That is your most critical stage of treatment," says former clinical director David Duresky. (Then-medical director Dr. Evan Zimmer, who supervised detox procedures, was unavailable for comment.) "It's a medical condition; it's not about therapy," Duresky continues. "There is a high risk of seizures and convulsions. I'm amazed that DCF has not acted on this. I did call them on the fourth [of January] and told them Mohamed is telling everyone he has a detox license, they are detoxing patients there, and you need to go out there. Nothing happened at all." Both Duresky and Zimmer resigned in early January at the same time Huttner, Shurgin, and Rustemoglu filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve their partnership with Ibrahim. "We hadn't been paid a penny for eight months," Huttner recalls angrily. "Then he gave us each five-thousand-dollar Christmas bonuses, and those bounced! That's when we knew we were never going to get paid."
Still more serious was the fact that Sea Winds was operating outside the law when it came to patient medication. "Over the weekend of January 6, 2001, I discovered that medications I prescribed to patients were not being delivered and dispensed to the patients," Zimmer later wrote in an affidavit. "These medications are critical to the proper treatment of the patients. This failure represents a danger to the patients' well-being. I also learned that the licenses necessary for the treatment I was delivering had not been obtained. The required licenses include a detoxification license and a pharmacy license. In addition, I am advised that the facility is not properly registered with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration." After Zimmer left, the head nurse at Sea Winds was accused of calling in prescriptions for controlled substances using Zimmer's DEA license number. "That's illegal as hell," observes DEA spokesman Brent Eaton. Furthermore without the proper DEA license, Sea Winds "should be shut down," Eaton believes. The new medical director, psychiatrist Scott Segal of North Miami, was out of town and did not return a phone call seeking comment about current conditions at Sea Winds.
Mohamed Ibrahim doesn't see why he's the one blamed for the lack of licensing when he knows nothing about medicine or addiction therapy. Huttner and Shurgin are the ones with experience managing rehab facilities, he points out. In fact Ibrahim insists that no detoxification program was ever in operation at his facility, an assertion contradicted by several former staffers. "To the best of my knowledge," he protests, "none of the detox was done on the premises. It was done independently somewhere else; I think it was a place called Summer House." Detox indeed was initially performed at Summer House, but later Sea Winds stopped referring clients there. For the past month the facility has sent detox patients to South Shore Hospital in Miami Beach.
Ibrahim also finds absurd several allegations of financial mismanagement contained in the lawsuit brought by his former partners. Among other things, Ibrahim is accused of regularly telling a branch manager at City National Bank of Florida which Sea Winds checks to cash and which to decline. "We have witnesses who will testify Mohamed talked on the phone to [the branch manager] almost every morning and told her, Cash that, don't cash that, cash that,'" asserts attorney Christopher David.
"David Shurgin was present when Mohamed would make those calls," adds Jonathan Huttner. "We just looked at each other like this was the most unbelievable thing we'd seen in our life."
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Ibrahim explains that the manager was merely doing him the favor of advising him if one of Sea Winds' three accounts was in danger of being overdrawn. He also accuses his former partners of not paying $450,000 in rent and of cashing almost $400,000 in insurance checks that should have been deposited into Sea Winds' accounts. "With that stolen money they hired an attorney to sue me," Ibrahim declares. Huttner claims they were writing checks for overdue payroll taxes.
Moreover, Ibrahim now contends that neither Zimmer nor Duresky wanted to resign but were harassed into quitting by Shurgin and Huttner. Last week Ibrahim countered his ex-partners' lawsuit with motions seeking a temporary injunction and restraining order, alleging that Huttner, Shurgin, and Rustemoglu are on a campaign to destroy Sea Winds by relentlessly harrying him, his staff, and his vendors. Several Sea Winds employees allege in affidavits that the three disaffected partners have threatened them with "big trouble" or with losing their professional licenses if they don't quit their jobs. A March 6 hearing is scheduled before Judge Thomas S. Wilson.
Sea Winds isn't the only pending legal matter on Ibrahim's plate. He is suing the City of Miami for closing down a Little Haiti market and beauty salon he was operating without proper permits. He also faces a criminal charge of contracting without a license. In August of last year he pleaded guilty to felony grand theft charges after admitting he forged a quit-claim deed. He paid his victim $17,000.
At least his protracted conflicts with the Village of Miami Shores appear to be over. He has moved Sea Winds' administrative offices to a building in unincorporated Miami-Dade County. Village attorney Richard Sarafan hopes Ibrahim will pick a different municipality for his next business venture. "I've told him to his face," Sarafan says of Ibrahim, "as far as the village is concerned, he is grossly overdrawn at the credibility bank."