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Somers Point doctor, Linwood man charged in ongoing prescription fraud case

CAMDEN — Three more people, including a Somers Point doctor and a Linwood man, were indicted Thursday in the ongoing $50 million prescription fraud scheme that targeted state health care plans in South Jersey.

The U.S. Attorney’s office announced a grand jury returned a 33-count indictment against Dr. Brian Sokalsky, 42, of Margate, Vincent Tornari, 46, of Linwood, and advanced practice nurse Ashley Lyons-Valenti, 63, of Swedesboro, Gloucester County, for their involvement in four different conspiracy schemes to receive kickback payments for medically unnecessary compounded medications.

In addition, a fourth conspirator who was previously charged, Dr. Michael Goldis, 64, of Stratford, Camden County, pleaded guilty to four counts of making false statements relating to health care matters.

The latest indictment ties together several of the many threads in the case, which first came to light in summer 2017 when Margate received a subpoena for its employee’s health benefit information. Since then, more than 30 people have been charged in the scheme.

The latest guilty plea from Goldis follows a plea agreement last week by William Hickman of Northfield, a pharmaceutical representative who federal officials say was a ringleader in the scheme.

Officials allege Sokalsky, who runs a sports medicine practice in Somers Point, Tornari and Lyon-Valenti defrauded the state out of more than $6 million.

Lyons-Valenti and Tornari were charged with a third conspiracy to bribe Lyons-Valenti and deprive her patients and employer of her honest services, according to the release.

Sokalsky and Tornari also were charged with individual acts of health care and wire fraud, and Lyons-Valenti was charged with individual acts of wire fraud and five false statement counts, in addition to obstruction of justice for tampering with a grand jury witness.

The cases are assigned to U.S. District Judge Robert B. Kugler.

Prosecutors have said the illegal scheme centers on the billing of the state’s public employee health benefit plans for medically unnecessary compounded drugs, with payouts from prescription reimbursements going to line the pockets of all participants.

In the first charged conspiracy, Matthew Tedesco, of Northfield, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud, had an arrangement with Sokalsky, officials said.

Tedesco would send patients to his practice, and Sokalsky would prescribe medications from a Louisiana pharmacy, which has only been identified as “Compounding Pharmacy 1” in court records.

Tedesco would then receive a percentage of the money that the pharmacy received for the prescriptions obtained by him and his associates, according to the release. Tedesco and his conspirators recruited public employees and others covered by the state plan and paid them in exchange for getting the compounded medications.

Sokalsky profited by billing insurance for over 30 new patients, officials said, and the state Pharmacy Benefits Administrator paid the Louisiana pharmacy over $5 million for compounded medications Sokalsky prescribed, authorities allege.

The indictment charged Sokalsky and Tornari with a similar scheme to write fraudulent prescriptions for a Pennsylvania pharmacy, identified as “Compounding Pharmacy 2,” according to officials.

Tornari allegedly hired Mark Bruno to find patients who would agree to receive medications in exchange for cash payments, according to the release. Bruno pleaded guilty in 2019 to conspiracy to commit health care fraud for his participation in the scheme. He is currently awaiting sentencing.

Tornari had Sokalsky agree to write prescriptions for new patients sent to him, according to the release. The prescriptions cost insurers over $500,000, officials said.

In a third scheme, Tornari allegedly hired Lyons-Valenti’s boyfriend and agreed to pay him commissions on each prescription to the Pennsylvania pharmacy Lyons-Valenti wrote.

Lyons-Valenti persuaded her workers and subordinates at her medical office to receive prescription medications from the Pennsylvania pharmacy that they did not need, often without giving them a medical examination or recording the prescriptions in their medical records, officials said. Lyons-Valenti wrote prescriptions for which insurance paid over $1.25 million and she received over $90,000 in kickbacks.

In a fourth scheme, authorities alleged Lyons-Valenti signed five Louisiana pharmacy prescriptions for Judd Holt, who previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud for his role in the scheme, officials said. On each of the five prescriptions, Lyons-Valenti falsely stated that she had examined the patient and the prescriptions were necessary, when they were not, the release states.

Lyons-Valenti also was charged with witness tampering for making false and misleading statements to a co-worker who was a federal grand jury witness, officials said.

In addition, Goldis, who had a medical practice in Stratford, Camden County, admitted to signing four prescriptions for individuals who were not his patients at the request of Richard Zappala, who previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud, officials said.

Goldis admitted that he received a total of $4,700 from Zappala, officials said. The Pharmacy Benefits Administrator paid approximately $1 million for prescriptions Goldis signed at Zappala’s request.

Goldis faces a maximum penalty on each count of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 6.

Staff Writer Claire Lowe contributed to this report.

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WATCH NOW: ‘Everybody said it wasn’t going to last:’ Mays Landing couple celebrates 71 years of marriage

MAYS LANDING — Every year, on June 25, Philip and Marie Cinquina bring out their wedding album and flip through the pages of their black and white wedding photos.

“We look good in this one,” Marie said, pointing to a photo of the young bride and groom posing for a portrait.

The photos are from June 25, 1949, the couple’s wedding day in Philadelphia.

“It doesn’t feel like 71 years,” said Marie, 93, on Thursday.

The Cinquinas, of Mays Landing, are a rarity in 2020. Only 6% of American marriages last more than 50 years, due in part to divorce rates and life expectancy, according to the United States Census Bureau. And the odds only go down from there. But a long marriage also leads to a longer life, evidence suggests.

Philip and Marie only support that evidence, explaining that they always did everything together.

Philip, 92, who joked that he married an older woman, still remembers the day of the wedding being very hot.

“It was 95 degrees,” he said, adding that there was no air conditioning in the church, only a fan.

He wasn’t too far off. Philadelphia was 93 degrees that day, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The couple met in 1948 at a dance on a Saturday night in the city. The Jitterbug was the popular dance of the time, and Philip was a good dancer, Marie remembers.

“I went to the dance, and we’re standing on one side, and I see her standing on the other side with three of her girlfriends,” Philip said.

“Five of my girlfriends,” his wife corrected him.

He then went over and asked Marie to dance. Afterward, he asked if he could take her home and she agreed, but only if he could take all of her friends home.

“My father said, ‘You go home with who you went with,’” Marie said. “You know how fathers are with daughters.”

But she liked him, adding that he looked like the perfect gentleman. He was also a good dancer.

“He still is,” she said.

Philip then asked Marie for her phone number and soon called to ask her out on a date. They went to the movies, which cost 35 cents a ticket, he said.

He proposed six months later on Christmas Eve and Marie’s birthday. They were in Atlantic City at a rooming house on the Boardwalk and were sitting on a porch swing after dinner when he popped the question.

He was nervous, he recalled laughingly. He was afraid she’d say no.

Six months later, a year after they first met, they were married.

“Everybody said it wasn’t going to last,” Marie said.

Both their parents said they were too young, barely 21 at the time, and didn’t know each other well enough to get married so soon.

“I think we’re the only ones that lasted this long,” she said, explaining that of most of their friends have since died.

In fact, they spent this year’s anniversary at a funeral for a close friend. They had no dinner plans, nor will they be exchanging gifts, unless family surprised them with a dinner, Philip said.

“We got everything we need,” Marie said. “We got each other.”

And advice for younger couples getting married today? Always communicate and never go to bed angry.

“We do everything together,” Philip said. “I love her more today than I did the day I married her. It’s been the happiest years of my life.”

“Same,” Marie added.

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Atlantic City man ordered released pending trial on Atlantic City protest charges

MAYS LANDING — Na’im Nixon smiled Thursday morning while giving a thumbs up after an Atlantic County Superior Court judge ordered him to be released from jail pending trial.

Na’im Nixon, 28, who was charged May 31 with riot, resisting arrest and violation of an emergency order after a peaceful protest against police brutality in the resort turned into vandalism and looting, was ordered released on pretrial monitoring after a detention held virtually before Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Sarah Beth Johnson.

Scott Salmon, Nixon’s attorney, said the arrest was a “case of mistaken identity,” and his supporters have lobbied for his release.

He will have to report by telephone to court staff twice a month, is prohibited from possessing a firearm and must refrain from using alcohol and drugs, Johnson said during the just-under-10-minute hearing, among other conditions.

Nixon, of Atlantic City, smiled while Johnson listed the conditions, a surgical mask pulled under his chin while he sat in a video conferencing booth in the Atlantic County jail and replied “Yes, ma’am.”

When asked by Johnson if he understood the conditions of his release, he gave a big thumbs up.

During the hearing, Scott Salmon, Nixon’s attorney, told Johnson that Nixon only had one previous failure to appear in court in January 2019, and he “has nowhere else to go other than Atlantic City,” adding that he doesn’t believe Nixon is a flight risk.

Assistant Prosecutor Gina DeAnnuntis, who represents the state in the case, did not object to bimonthly reporting.

Salmon declined to comment after the hearing.

Officials allege Nixon ran through two lines of officers in the middle of the street as they attempted to disperse people during riots, according to an affidavit of probable cause.

When officers attempted to arrest him, he held his arms in front of him refusing to place them behind his back, according to the document.

However, Salmon has said that Nixon’s arrest was a “case of mistaken identity,” and his supporters have lobbied for his release.

Nixon was ordered held until trial after a detention hearing earlier this month in county Superior Court, but his lawyer said that

He successfully argued for Nixon’s release, citing a limited criminal record and his ties to the community, making him not a flight risk, and the appellate court turned over the order to detain him.

Nixon was one of 17 people arrested that day after a peaceful protest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd turned violent, and police said a group of rioters walked along Atlantic Avenue breaking windows, damaging property and stealing merchandise of local businesses.

Floyd died May 25 after he was arrested in Minneapolis and an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Protesters nationwide have called for an end to police brutality.

Nixon’s next scheduled hearing is a preindictment conference on July 30 before Judge Rodney Cunningham.

Contact: 609-272-7241 mbilinski@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Cars wait in line during a food distribution at Bader Field in Atlantic City. Atlantic City, NJ. June 25, 2020 (Kristian Gonyea/For The Press of Atlantic City) . Atlantic City, NJ. June 21, 2020 (Kristian Gonyea/For The Press of Atlantic City)

Awaiting guidance from state, school districts in 'holding pattern' on fall reopening plans

With just two months to plan for the reopening of school buildings for the 2020-21 school year, districts say they have had their hands tied on planning as they are still awaiting guidance from the state on what going back to the classroom will look like during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No matter what the guidance will actually be, the only options are back to normal with social distancing when possible, continue virtual learning, or some type of hybrid with multiple modifications,” said Upper Township Superintendent Vincent Palmieri. “Most districts are planning for all possible options, but until official guidance is given, we are all in a holding pattern.”

Last week, a coalition of state education organizations, including the New Jersey School Boards Association, expressed frustration over the lack of guidance from the state, which was promised by the governor to come out in mid-June.

“We have been conveying to state leaders the growing frustrations of our memberships with the uncertainties, lack of consistent guidance, and lack of needed resources to meet students’ educational and wellness needs,” reads a June 17 letter from New Jersey Leadership for Educational Excellence to its membership.

Schools shut down indefinitely for in-person instruction in mid-March, transitioning to a remote-learning model with little notice, which has had its share of failures and criticisms.

On Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that state Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet would be releasing the guidelines Friday.

Murphy in May said that schools would be closed through June 30 and guidance for the fall would be forthcoming. He has said that he was hopeful that classes will resume in-person in September.

“The department has made a major effort to listen to the concerns and challenges of stakeholders in an effort to create guidance that is driven by their input,” NJ Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple said, noting the DOE’s survey of parents attracted 295,501 responses.

The DOE has also held hundreds of stakeholder meetings, he said.

Other states — although not as hard hit by the virus as New Jersey — have released at least some plans for reopening including Tennessee, North Carolina, Illinois and Minnesota. Connecticut, which is part of a partnership with New Jersey and New York in its COVID-19 response and recovery, was expected to release guidance Thursday.

Egg Harbor Township Superintendent Kim Gruccio said she had a call with the county superintendent Wednesday morning on the issue and was told to wait on making plans.

“That guidance should come out any time now and no one has any idea as to what it will say,” she said.

Meanwhile, Gruccio is starting an “Opening of Schools Committee” to review state guidelines, research ideas, and provide feedback that is relevant to the township, which serves more than 7,000 students and employs 730 teachers, support staff and administrators, as well as an additional 510 noncertified staff members. It also operates eight schools, a central office, a transportation building and its own bus fleet.

“As you can imagine, there are many areas of concern — health screening process, (personal protective equipment), teaching and learning, social distancing, cleaning process, lunches, transportation, athletics ... to name just a few. The world as we knew it when it comes to schools has drastically changed and as of today. How it will look and function in the near future is unknown,” Gruccio said.

Part of the frustration among school officials stems from the state already releasing guidance to child care facilities and summer camps on how they could begin operations this summer, as well as plans for “Extended School Year” programs for special education students.

“We need to know exactly what we will be planning for and we need adequate time to do so,” said Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings. “ We have concerns regarding the safety of our staff and students in the fall with respect to COVID-19. However, with the economy opening back up, we also have concerns regarding the safety of our students when unsupervised at home.”

In the letter, Leadership for Educational Excellence leaders called for “clear and universal” health and safety guidelines to serve as the foundation for a school reopening plan and not broad guidelines from the CDC released last month.

“We have been working tirelessly to convey to state officials the need for guidance, support and resources to enable districts to successfully meet the needs of their students when schools reopen,” said Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “In addition to clear guidelines from the state, our recommendations include adequate planning time for districts, regulatory flexibility, and additional resources to meet health and safety needs.”

The letter also called for additional funding, estimating it would cost $490 per pupil for personal protective equipment in addition to the added costs for transportation, increased staff and sanitization efforts.

New Jersey schools were awarded $310 million in federal stimulus this spring funds to cover costs related to the coronavirus.

NJ awarded $310 million in CARES Act funds for K-12 education

From enhancing distance learning to cleaning school buildings, local school districts are beginning to consider how to spend their share of the $310 million allocated this week in federal stimulus money for New Jersey education in response to COVID-19.