A former church pastor fraudulently billed MaineCare for as much as $400,000 in substance abuse counseling services, and used the money to pay himself a $189,000 salary and buy jewelry, a house, plane tickets and other items, prosecutors said during his trial Thursday.

Ronald Petersen, a former associate pastor of Faith Christian Center in Limerick, is facing a charge of theft by deception, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Petersen, 57, of Bridgton, orchestrated an elaborate scheme by setting up a counseling service and obtaining MaineCare billing numbers from licensed substance abuse counselors whom he knew, said Leanne Robbin, a Maine assistant attorney general. He then pretended to provide counseling services to MaineCare patients when few or no such services actually occurred, Robbin said.

In some cases, Petersen paid clients who were recovering addicts a nominal sum to obtain the MaineCare patient numbers of other people, and used those numbers to bill MaineCare, even though he did not provide them any services, Robbin said.

MaineCare is the state’s name for Medicaid, the state-run program that receives substantial federal funding to provide health care services to low-income residents.

The prosecution argued that Petersen operated Hope Recovery Center, a tiny substance abuse counseling services company, but billed MaineCare as though he operated a much larger enterprise. Petersen billed MaineCare for about $575,000 from September 2010 to February 2012.

Prosecutors wrapped up their case Thursday in the weeklong trial. The defense did not present a case, and Petersen’s attorney, John Webb, declined to comment to the Press Herald on why no defense witnesses were called. Closing arguments will be Friday.

Detective Jeff Wrigley, an investigator with the attorney general’s health care crimes unit, testified Thursday that Petersen told him during an interview in February 2012 about Hope Recovery Center that “God told me to start it.”

According to Robbin, the two licensed counselors gave Petersen permission to use their MaineCare billing number, but only so he could meet state licensing requirements to open the counseling center, which is next to Faith Christian Center but is not affiliated with the church. Petersen, who is not a licensed counselor, was supposed to hire licensed counselors to perform the counseling work. Licensed counselors have MaineCare provider billing numbers that allow them to bill the state for services provided to MaineCare patients.

“They explicitly told him they had full-time jobs and that he could not use their MaineCare numbers to bill MaineCare,” Robbin said. “But all of the charges to MaineCare were using their two MaineCare numbers.”

Petersen eventually hired a few licensed counselors, but Robbin said the services that Hope Recovery Center provided came nowhere near the $575,000 billed to MaineCare. She said the fraudulent billing was likely between $300,000 and $400,000, and Petersen spent the money on a $5,000 diamond ring for a girlfriend, a $20,000 down payment on a house, airplane tickets to Florida and other items.

Robbin said Petersen perpetuated the scheme by bringing in MaineCare patients for a session or two of counseling, but billing MaineCare dozens of times for non-existent counseling sessions. Robbin said Petersen also paid clients who were recovering addicts to get the MaineCare patient numbers for at least eight other MaineCare patients, and used those numbers to bill MaineCare for services he never provided.

Valerie Wright, a Maine assistant attorney general who is also working on the case, said Petersen also billed MaineCare as though Hope Recovery Center was a methadone clinic, possibly because doing so required fewer regulations than offering outpatient subtance abuse counseling.

The scheme came apart when program auditors for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services noticed in late 2011 that Hope Recovery Center was billing for methadone despite not being a methadone clinic. After giving Petersen some time to refund MaineCare, investigators started looking more closely into Hope Recovery Center in February 2012, when the center closed.

Wrigley testified that Petersen, during the February 2012 interview, downplayed his role at Hope Recovery Center and blamed someone else for the fraudulent billing: Joe Ippolito, a recovering addict who died in 2012. Ippolito had been on dialysis for kidney failure prior to his death.

Webb said after Thursday’s session that Petersen “did not intentionally defraud MaineCare” and that Ippolito was operating a “criminal enterprise” within Hope Recovery Center.

But Robbin said Ippolito did not do any work for Petersen until mid-2011, several months after Hope Recovery Center opened. When Ippolito did work for Petersen, Petersen was still the one calling the shots, Robbin said.

“Petersen’s fingerprints are all over these extra billings,” she said.

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