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Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Saint Augustine Prep’s against Egg Harbor Township’s during high school baseball game at Saint Augustine Prep in Richland, NJ. Friday April 5, 2019. Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer

Alleged health benefits fraud ringleaders ordered to post bond

CAMDEN — A federal judge Friday did not release any of the $1.6 million seized as part of the investigation into a Northfield couple alleged to have led a health benefits fraud scheme.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert B. Kugler cited the $821,000 in assets available to William Hickman and his wife, Sara, including checking and savings accounts, an IRA and a timeshare in Hawaii, the value of which was not disclosed.

Sara Hickman, 42, a former charter school teacher, and her husband, William, 42, a former pharmaceutical sales representative, pleaded not guilty in the $50 million scheme to defraud the state’s health benefits plan last month after their initial arrest.

Kugler ordered the couple to post a secured bond by noon Friday after their attorneys argued unsuccessfully for the release of the assets and for an unsecured bond, saying the Hickmans were not a flight risk. In so doing, Kugler upheld Judge Ann Marie Donio’s ruling last month.

Last week, Kugler agreed to allow Sara Hickman to take her son to Orlando, Florida, to visit Disney World and other amusements.

During Friday’s appearance, William Hickman’s attorney, Samuel Moulthrop, asked Kugler whether a condo with a value of $81,000, as well as liens on two cars, a 2015 Chevy Suburban and a 2016 BMW X5 with a Blue Book value of $50,000 to $55,000, could be posted as collateral at those valuations.

Assistant U.S. Attorney R. David Walk Jr., who represents the state, did not object, and Kugler granted the request.

The government has frozen many of the couple’s other accounts and properties, totaling $1.6 million, said Lee Vartan, Sara Hickman’s attorney. Vartan argued the couple needed money for day-to-day living expenses as well as a “time-intensive, labor intensive and costly defense.”

The Hickmans knew the case was pending for two years, Vartan said, and traveled outside the country during that time, always returning.

While they were traveling, “all of these assets were fully unrestrained,” Vartan said. “They had a lot of money to go and flee where they wanted to flee at that time. ... They have every intention of fighting the indictment and prevailing at trial.”

One of the reasons for the secured bond was the possible exposure, or sentence, the Hickmans could face, Vartan said.

The total possible length of the prison time the Hickmans are facing was not disclosed in court, but a charge of conspiracy to commit health care and wire fraud carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.

Vartan argued Sara Hickman “was not involved in this business at all.”

“She had no involvement in the day-to-day activities of Boardwalk Medical,” he argued, adding she didn’t speak to doctors or anyone else. “She wasn’t speaking to anyone except her children.”

State records show Boardwalk Medical LLC was created in 2013 under Sara Hickman’s name. Prosecutors allege it was a shell company the Hickmans used to funnel money through the scheme.

At the start of the hearing, Kugler ruled to seal the discovery that included the Hickmans’ financial information after their attorneys argued the media attention the case is getting is extraordinary.

“The Hickmans have already started to get hate mail,” Moulthrop said. “They’ve been harassed publicly in the supermarket. It’s been really damaging. We’re very, very concerned about additional information going out there.”

Vartan said his concern was getting an impartial jury due to the front-page coverage.

“I am confident since this court draws jurors from seven counties, that this court will be able to find jurors who have not made up their minds,” Kugler said. “We will find jurors who are not tainted by any pretrial coverage.”

Police are cracking down on distracted driving in Atlantic, Cape May counties

Joel Feldman can’t drive across the Ninth Street bridge in Ocean City without a flurry of painful emotions returning.

The bridge is blocks away from where his 21-year-old daughter, Casey, was killed by a distracted driver 10 years ago in July while walking to her summer waitressing job at Bob’s Grill.

“He reached for his GPS and then hit Casey. He said he didn’t see her,” Feldman said of the accident that ended the life of Casey, an aspiring television broadcaster who was studying at Fordham University in New York.

In April, police across New Jersey crack down on motorists who text and drive during their three-week “U Text. U Drive. U Pay.” campaign, which runs until the 21st.

Ten police departments in Cape May and Atlantic counties have received $5,500 federal grants for additional patrols during the ticket blitz.

Distracted driving is a widespread problem, even as drivers become more aware of the consequences of taking their eyes off the road. Across Atlantic County, there were 52 crashes related to cellphone use in 2017, the most recent year for which there are data, according to the state Department of Transportation. Cape May County saw 14 such incidents.

Every day at rush hour in April, an Egg Harbor Township police detail stakes out busy roads for four-hour texting-and-driving crackdowns. On Thursday, police gave out 15 tickets for distracted driving on the Black Horse Pike before 1 p.m. The minimum fine is $150 to $200.

Distracted driving includes texting, eating, drinking and grooming, said Egg Harbor Township police Sgt. Larry Graham.

“Anything that takes your mind off the road,” Graham said, though officers use their discretion.

The township, which receives grant money each April, saw the second highest number of crashes related to cellphone use in Atlantic County, behind only Atlantic City.

Hands-free, Bluetooth devices are now installed in most new vehicles, Graham said. And although that’s better than texting, he cited research that shows even talking while driving takes a person’s brain off the task at hand.

Texting and driving was the leading cause of fatal crashes in the state for seven years, according to an annual report by the State Police. The number of cellphone-related crashes in Atlantic County hasn’t changed significantly since 2008, after the first iPhones were released.

The situation, Feldman said, isn’t getting worse or better. He argues laws and stricter enforcement can only go so far. Instead, the culture of constant connectivity needs to change, he said.

“It’s the last thing we do before going to bed and first thing we do when we wake up,” he said. “If we can get teens to want to be that respectful person ... that’s how you make distracted driving a thing of the past.”

After his daughter’s death, Feldman started a nonprofit, End Distracted Driving, aimed at doing just that. He has spoken to more than 150,000 adults and students at talks around the country, trying to appeal to listeners on a personal level.

One alarming trend: Younger and less experienced motorists are not as worried about the effects of texting on their driving. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey found 30 percent of drivers between 21 and 34 said texting doesn’t impact their motor skills.

“I’m more concerned about the teens because of their inexperience,” Feldman said. “The adults can get away with it longer.”

Sending a six-character text takes about five seconds, Graham said, and another 20 seconds to fully return focus to the road. A driver going 45 mph will travel between 100 and 150 feet in that time, he said.

“That’s a long time to have your attention drawn away from the road,” he said.

No discipline decision yet for Atlantic City officer in 2014 incident

ATLANTIC CITY — A city police officer facing disciplinary action for an incident that occurred almost five years ago will have to wait a little bit longer to learn his fate.

Retired Superior Court Judge Steven Perskie said he needed more time to make a determination about recommending discipline for Officer Huan Le following a nearly three-hour hearing Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Building. He acknowledged that “justice delayed is justice denied” and vowed to make his recommendations as soon as possible.

Friday’s public hearing was attended by nearly 60 Le supporters who held signs and chanted for justice outside the Public Safety Building on Atlantic Avenue.

Le has been accused of using excessive force and failing to file proper documentation related to an incident in May 2014 that left one man seeking medical treatment at the hospital.

Charles Goodman, a community activist and supporter of Le, said the officer was being scapegoated by the department. He noted that other Atlantic City police officers have cost the city “millions of dollars” in excessive force lawsuits and kept their positions.

Le was named in 51 uses of force between 2012 and 2016, seven of which were recorded in 2014. A use of force does not automatically constitute excess. Police are authorized to use force to make an arrest or defend themselves in the line of duty.

Asked whether he would support other officers under similar circumstances, Goodman said it was a matter of justice not being equally distributed.

“They’re trying to railroad (Le) for something the Prosecutor’s Office cleared him for years ago,” said Goodman.

Joseph Rodgers, Le’s attorney, confirmed prosecutors investigated a May 2014 incident but never filed charges.

Le, 43, a 13-year veteran of the Police Department, could be facing suspension or termination. His salary in 2018 was $93,869.81, public records show.

The Rev. Andy Vu, a Buddhist monk from a temple in Egg Harbor Township, said Le was an asset to the Vietnamese community and a “good officer.”

Peter Nguyen testified as a character witness on Le’s behalf Friday, the seventh individual to do so over the course of two hearings. At a hearing in late March, six people, including 5th Ward Councilman Chuen “Jimmy” Cheng, spoke to Le’s honesty and integrity.

Le testified Friday, taking questions from his attorney and the city’s lawyer, as well as Perskie. According to all three, Le’s testimony was largely consistent with a sworn deposition conducted by internal affairs in 2015.

Following the internal affairs investigation, police Chief Henry White filed disciplinary charges against Le in 2015. Le has been working as a uniformed police officer since that time.

On May 14, 2014, Le and Officer Josh Vadell responded to a call about “fighting and yelling” in an apartment on North Hartford Avenue about 12:35 a.m. When the officers arrived, a woman answered the door claiming to be alone, but Vadell and Le heard other voices.

The officers entered the apartment. Vadell dealt with the woman, and Le encountered three people in another room. One of the three, Kevin Suarez, and Le got into a verbal disagreement, which resulted in the officer restraining Suarez with handcuffs using a “control maneuver.” Le also told Suarez, according to his testimony Friday, that he was arresting Suarez for obstruction.

Once the situation was deescalated, Suarez was released and no charges were filed.

Le did not file the required paperwork informing his supervisory shift officer about the use of force.

Suarez sought medical attention at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s Atlantic City Campus 19 hours later for “bruising and swelling” on the left side of his head. He filed a complaint with the city May 15.

According to testimony provided by witnesses of the incident and introduced during the hearings, Le punched Suarez in the head. Le and his attorney have denied that allegation.

cshaw-pressofac / COLT SHAW/Staff Writer///  

William Hickman, 42, of Northfield Charged with conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud, individual acts of health care fraud and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, individual acts of money laundering

clowe-pressofac / Colt Shaw / Staff Writer 

William and Sara Hickman are escorted out of the FBI office in Northfield after being charged with participating in the ongoing health benefits fraud scheme March 15.

SJTA approves plan to move endangered bird grassland from airport

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — The South Jersey Transportation Authority moved one step closer Friday to getting endangered birds out of the path of jets at Atlantic City International Airport.

The SJTA’s Board of Commissioners approved an amendment to a 2004 agreement with the state Pinelands Commission that would allow the airport to mow a 293-acre grassland area set aside for the birds and open a similar conservation site at a plot in the Pinelands, of which 62 acres is already cleared.

Under the agreement, the authority would make six payments of $500,000 to the Pinelands Conservation Fund for land acquisition. The agreement is still subject to Pinelands Commission approval at its meeting next Friday.

Only Commissioner James “Sonny” McCullough objected to the amendment during the meeting at the Farley Service Plaza on the Atlantic City Expressway.

“I believe this is a bad deal,” said McCullough, the former mayor of Egg Harbor Township, where the airport is located. “I think it was negotiated wrong.”

The original deal allowed the SJTA to develop parts of the airport within the Pinelands in exchange for creating a grassland habitat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division in 2009 conducted a Wildlife Hazard Assessment for the airport and recommended a reexamination of the 2004 agreement.

“The airport is losing money,” McCullough said, “and here we are paying $3 million to cut the grass.”

The SJTA-owned plot in question is populated by the endangered upland sandpiper and the threatened grasshopper sparrow.

A report by consulting firm Environmental Resource Solutions Inc. found the number of strike reports involving the birds went up after the establishment of the reserve but decreased between 2011 and 2017.

“When these things happen, they can be rare, but they can be catastrophic,” Sarah Brammell, a Federal Aviation Administration-qualified airport wildlife biologist, told the Pinelands Commission during a public hearing in March.

The agreement also would enhance a 12-acre site in the northeast quadrant of the airport dedicated to the preservation of the “frosted elfin butterfly through the planting of wild indigo.”

The SJTA will submit a detailed plan, with milestones, to the Pinelands Commission for the new Grassland Conservation and Management Area. The plan is to have the conservation site completed within three years of approval.

Friday’s vote is subject to a governor’s veto period of 15 business days.


SUBMITTED PHOTO Casey Feldman, the 21 year student who was killed at the crosswalk at 14th and Central Aves in Ocean City last summer. Monday Mar. 22, 2010. (Submitted Photo/Feldman Family)

DAVID DANZIS / Staff Writer  

Atlantic City police Officer Huan Le, right, was named in 51 uses of force between 2012 and 2016, seven of which were recorded in 2014.