Originally created 01/31/98

Judge seeks discipline for attorney from Bar



ATLANTA -- A federal court is urging Georgia's State Bar to discipline a former attorney for Healthmaster Inc. because of her role in securing campaign contributions that were illegally laundered through Medicare.

Three judges of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said the Bar should consider revoking the law license of Noel O'Neal Ingram, who was Healthmaster's vice president for legal affairs.

The judges made the comment in a footnote to a ruling, issued last week, that reduced the 33-month prison sentence of Jeanette G. Garrison, founder of the Augusta-based home health care chain.

Judge Stanley F. Birch ordered a copy of the court's ruling sent to the State Bar of Georgia "for the purpose of determining whether this unindicted co-conspirator is fit for continued membership in the Georgia Bar."

Ms. Garrison and two former lieutenants are serving prison time for a Medicare fraud scheme that included submitting $191,000 in false claims to the government for campaign contributions, which legally are not reimbursable.

Healthmaster filed bankruptcy and was sold shortly after the February 1995 indictments. Ms. Ingram was never charged with a crime and continues working for the company in Augusta, now known as CareSouth.

Reached at her Augusta office Friday, Ms. Ingram said she was unaware of the court's action. She declined to discuss details of her role in the fund-raising.

"There should be no problem with the State Bar with me," Ms. Ingram said. "I am not concerned, and that's it. That's all I am going to say."

According to testimony in Ms. Garrison's Medicare fraud case, Ms. Ingram was directed on 20 occasions between 1988 and 1992 to solicit employees for $200 contributions to candidates chosen by Ms. Garrison.

Ms. Garrison was chairwoman of The Governor's Club, an elite circle of Democratic fund-raisers.

Ms. Ingram, according to court records, assured the employees that Ms. Garrison would repay them double on their next paychecks as a bonus.

Those false bonuses were incorporated into Healthmaster's bills to Medicare, which pays home health agencies based on how much they spend each year.

The contribution scheme was a way of evading campaign finance laws. State candidates can only accept a limited amount from any one corporate donor, while federal candidates cannot take any corporate money.

Ms. Ingram's role was highlighted in the Garrison appeal because Ms. Garrison's sentence was increased for supervising others in breaking the law.

Ms. Garrison challenged that finding on the grounds that Ms. Ingram did not realize she was participating in a crime -- a claim the appeals court rejected.

"Rather than being a dupe, Ingram was Healthmaster's in-house attorney whose expertise was Medicare regulations, the very law that Garrison's political contributions scheme violated," Judge Birch wrote.

The State Bar, which licenses lawyers, has no record of any disciplinary action against Ms. Ingram, a University of South Carolina law graduate who has been licensed in Georgia since 1986.

When courts send such complaints to the Bar, they are referred to a disciplinary review panel, which may dismiss the case or ask the Georgia Supreme Court to send the matter to a hearing officer. If an ethical violation is found, sanctions can range from a formal letter of reprimand to disbarment.