A San Diego County neurosurgeon pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge that he accepted more than $3 million in bribes for performing surgery at a now-defunct Long Beach hospital.
The owner of Pacific Hospital was later imprisoned for committing a massive workers’ compensation system scam.
Lokesh Tantuwaya, 55, of Rancho Santa Fe, entered his plea to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and to violate the federal anti-kickback statute. He has been in federal custody since May 2021 after he was found to have violated the terms of his pretrial release, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
U.S. District Judge Josephine L. Staton scheduled his sentencing for Dec. 9. Tantuwaya faces up to five years in federal prison.
According to his plea agreement and statements at in court, from 2010 to 2013, Tantuwaya accepted money from Michael Drobot, who owned Pacific Hospital, in exchange for performing spinal surgeries there. The bribe amount varied depending on the type of spinal surgery.
The hospital specialized in surgeries, especially spinal and orthopedic procedures. Drobot conspired with doctors, chiropractors and marketers to pay kickbacks and bribes in return for the referral of thousands of patients for surgeries and other medical services paid for primarily through the California workers’ compensation system.
During its final five years, the scheme resulted in the submission of more than $500 million in medical bills for surgeries that triggered $40 million in kickbacks.
Tantuwaya entered into contracts with the hospital owner and other companies the man owned. The doctor admitted in his plea agreement that he knew or deliberately was ignorant that the payments were being given to him in exchange for bringing surgeries to Pacific Hospital.
In furtherance of the scheme, Tantuwaya met with Drobot and Drobot’s employees. Tantuwaya also deposited checks that represented bribes into his bank accounts, according to documents filed in Los Angeles federal court.
The surgeon admitted that he knew the receipt of money in exchange for the referral of medical services was illegal and that he owed a fiduciary duty to his patients to not accept money in exchange for shifting their procedures to Pacific Hospital.
In total, Tantuwaya received $3.3 million in illegal payments for bringing $38 million in procedures to the hospital.
In April 2013, law enforcement searched Pacific Hospital, which was sold later that year, bringing the kickback scheme to an end; 23 defendants have been convicted for participating. Other physicians involved in the scheme hail from Dana Point and Irvine, according to federal prosecutors.
– City News Service