Originally created 10/11/97

Home health care giant seeks to overturn conviction



ATLANTA - Lawyers for former St. Simons Island home health giant Robert "Jack" Mills were back in federal court Friday seeking to overturn his 1996 Medicare fraud conviction.

Two members of a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel hinted they may go along with Mr. Mills' lawyer that there was at least one legal error in the Medicare fraud trial - that limits were placed on the cross-examination of the government's final witness.

However, a federal prosecutor argued to the panel that if an error was made, it was harmless and did not have significant bearing on the outcome.

Mr. Mills was the second of two Georgia home health care titans to wind up behind bars in consecutive years after being convicted of Medicare fraud.

The owner of Augusta-based Healthmaster, Jeanette G. Garrison, admitted she charged off more than $1 million worth of personal expenses as business costs for her Medicare-reimbursed chain. Among the excesses: an employee's honeymoon, tickets to World Series games in Minnesota and the Democratic National Convention in New York, and campaign contributions to leading Democrats.

Ms. Garrison is serving a 33-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty in 1995 to 10 felony counts. Two of her financial experts, Dennis J. Kelly and David W. Suba, fought the charges in court and got longer terms.

Healthmaster was sold at bankruptcy auction and renamed by the new owners - as was its fiercest competitor, Mr. Mills' Brunswick-based First American Health Care.

Mr. Mills and his company were convicted last year on 69 felony counts - later reduced to 28 counts by a federal judge - and ordered to pay the government $115 million from the sale of First American, at that time the nation's largest privately owned home care chain.

The improper billings, prosecutors found, ranged from flights on Medicare-subsidized planes to watch Auburn football games, to 98 bags of Vidalia onions given away to politicians.

Mr. Mills was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison. His wife and business partner, Margie Mills, was sentenced to two years and eight months in federal prison for two counts of making false statements to the government.

Appeals Court Judges Joseph W. Hatchett, J.L. Edmondson and Emmett R. Cox heard appeals Friday from both Mr. and Mrs. Mills.

Jack Mills' attorney, Jim Jenkins, argued U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield erred by not allowing each of the suspect's lawyers to cross-examine the final witness, who was summing up the government's case.

"This was a complete denial of the right to cross examination," Jenkins said. "This is not a harmless error."

Among other problems, Mr. Jenkins said Judge Edenfield took secret testimony during the sentencing phase of the trial.

However, federal prosecutor Thomas Gannon told the panel the case exposed a costly "ripoff of the taxpayers" by Mr. Mills and his company.

Mr. Gannon said Judge Edenfield only limited cross-examination because the lawyers for the Mills couple and their company had resorted to three days worth of repetitive, "time-wasting" tag-team attacks on government witnesses.

However, Judge Hatchett told Mr. Gannon, "There is not a single case in the country to support your position."

Judge Edmondson said, "It's very difficult for me to see how this cannot be an error."

The judges took the case under advisement without indicating when they would rule. Ms. Garrison, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Suba all have already pleaded their cases before the appeals bench, but no decisions have been released.