Philip Ward and his wife, Kitzia Huerta, were contracted by Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) to help injured, non-English-speaking workers navigate the workers’ compensation system. Instead, they milked the system, billing for services they never provided or overbilling for services they did provide.
Ward pleaded guilty Nov. 18 in a scheme that Washington authorities say cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Ward and Huerta owned and operated Hispanic Voices, a business that once contracted with L&I to provide Spanish-language interpretation for injured workers at medical and vocational appointments related to workers’ compensation claims.
Based in Mountlake Terrace, their business employed dozens of interpreters providing services throughout King, Pierce, Whatcom and Snohomish counties. Ward pleaded guilty in Thurston County Superior Court to three counts of first-degree theft, and Huerta pleaded guilty in October to one count of first-degree theft in the same case.
By pleading guilty, the couple admitted to defrauding L&I from February 2006 to September 2008 by:
- Billing for interpretive services that never occurred.
- Inflating bills for services that did occur.
- Using the provider numbers of certified interpreters to bill for services provided by uncertified interpreters.
Prosecutors from the attorney general’s office contended the fraudulent billings amounted to well over $600,000, making it L&I’s largest case ever of interpreter fraud. As part of their guilty pleas, the couple has agreed to repay the state. The court will determine the amount of restitution at a hearing on Dec. 9.
Charges against the couple resulted from a complex L&I investigation that took years to build. In addition to conducting interviews, investigators combed through hundreds of thousands of documents to cross-reference client appointments with dates of service from interpreters, medical providers and legal providers.
The investigation revealed that the main way the couple defrauded L&I was by requiring interpreters to leave part of their billing forms blank. The couple then added from 30 minutes to several hours to most appointments. Investigators found more than 10,800 such instances of overbilling.
Each of the counts against Ward included “aggravating” circumstances that could result in more prison time than under standard sentencing guidelines. In addition to paying restitution, Philip Ward could face up to 120 months in prison and Huerta could face up to 90 days in jail.
Huerta’s sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 17, 2014, and Ward’s sentencing is scheduled for April 21, 2014. Hispanic Voices is no longer in business.