The Tulsa City Council took no action Wednesday after meeting in executive session to discuss a federal lawsuit filed against the city’s ambulance provider.
The executive session agenda called for councilors to discuss potential claims in the case and “possible intervention in pending litigation,” but after the meeting City Attorney David O’Meilia said no decisions were made regarding the lawsuit.
“We are just looking to make sure the city is protected on the situation,” O’Meilia said. “That’s what the discussion was.”
O’Meilia said he did not know whether the city would take action, or when a decision on whether to do so would be made.
“I think probably we’ll have to do some more research,” O’Meilia said. “I think there are some options.”
A complaint filed in a federal lawsuit Jan. 23 alleges EMSA and its CEO, Stephen Williamson, were involved in an illegal kickback scheme to keep a lucrative public ambulance provider contract.
The civil complaint accuses EMSA and Williamson of accepting more than $20 million in a kickback scheme from a contractor vying to land and keep EMSA’s lucrative public ambulance contract. The company provided paramedics, ambulances and other personnel to EMSA between 1998 and 2013.
Paramedics Plus and its parent company East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare System — both Texas-based — gave EMSA more than $20 million for the lucrative contract, in addition to expensive gifts and cash to EMSA employees, the complaint alleges. Additionally, contributions to politicians were made at Williamson’s request.
Prosecutors allege in addition to kickbacks, the company bought EMSA equipment and paid its bills for services including construction, consulting and marketing. By allowing its bills to be paid, EMSA avoided its own policies requiring it to place all expenditures more than $25,000 out for public bid, the complaint alleges.
EMSA provides services to people in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City areas. An emailed statement from EMSA on Jan. 26 says the case is “in no way related to the high quality of care that EMSA provides to all patients.”
“EMSA makes every effort to adhere to applicable rules, regulations and laws,” the statement says.
“EMSA has earn a reputation of providing Oklahomans with excellent ambulance service and looks forward to continuing our mission long after this issue is resolved.
In response to a request for an interview or statement from Williamson, EMSA spokeswoman Kelli Bruer said “the statement also applies to Mr. Williamson.”
Paramedics Plus President Ron Schwartz on Jan. 23 released a statement disputing the suit’s claims, saying the company agreed to return a share of its profit to EMSA, “a standard and legal practice in this industry — which was publicly disclosed.”
“One of our most precious freedoms is the right to defend ourselves against false accusations, even when brought by the federal government,” the statement continues. “We intend to vigorously exercise that right and expect to be vindicated.”
In return for awarding the lucrative EMSA contract to Paramedics Plus, the contractor would offer kickbacks to EMSA and its employees, the lawsuit alleges.
When EMSA began struggling financially from 1994 to 1998, Williamson turned to the ambulance services contract for a source of revenue.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in the eastern district of Texas, claims EMSA and Paramedics Plus purposely omitted the terms of the kickback arrangement from contracts and hid it from the public.
EMSA and Paramedics Plus set up a slush fund and called the arrangement a “profit cap” in an effort to give it the appearance of legitimacy and conceal it from EMSA’s Board of Trustees.
Under the secret agreement, Paramedics Plus would pay back to EMSA any excess profits exceeding 12 percent, the lawsuit states.
Following Tulsa World investigations that began in 2011 , EMSA’s board requested the state conduct a special audit to investigate the allegations. The auditor wasn’t charged with looking into potential violations of federal law, including the Anti-Kickback statute.
Still, the lawsuit claims, EMSA tasked a law firm to prepare a “ghost-written letter” on behalf of Schwartz. EMSA employees printed it on Paramedics Plus letterhead and added it to the contract’s file. The letter was meant to appear to be between Williamson and Schwartz, confirming the profit-cap arrangement.
“Defendants papered the file to make it appear this letter had existed for years,” the suit alleges.
“Defendants knew the arrangement was illegal and believed a written letter of some sort — even if there was only an appearance of a written agreement — would prevent detection of the illegal kickback scheme.”
The lawsuit alleges Williamson received at least $50,000 for his travels as president of American Ambulance Association, which was unrelated to the contract. Meanwhile, Williamson was paid a roughly $1,000 stipend per month from the association.
Prosecutors allege it doesn’t appear Williamson disclosed the arrangement to the EMSA Board of Trustees when he recommended selecting Paramedics Plus during a July 29, 1998, meeting. The $50,000 payment to Williamson also wasn’t disclosed.
In addition to paying Williamson’s airfare, ETMC and Paramedics Plus bought EMSA employees more than $1,300 in steak, the lawsuit claims. Williamson paid for employees’ spa visits and parties.