A Hallowell mental health and addiction treatment agency that closed suddenly in September — leaving a few hundred clients without services — was under investigation for fraud and owed more than $300,000 to the state, according to emails exchanged among state health officials, agency staff members and others in the weeks that followed.

The privately owned agency, Protea Integrated Health and Wellness, had operated at the Hallowell site since 2012, as well as at several satellite locations, and was serving more than 300 clients. It offered Suboxone treatment and counseling to those recovering from opiate addiction, as well as community integration services for those with mental illness.

But in September, Protea entered a tailspin after a third-party investor owed money by the agency stopped providing revolving loans for its operations. One of Protea’s principals, Leigh Leighton, tried to find another investor; but when he couldn’t, the agency suddenly closed at the end of September, according to copies of Maine Department of Health and Human Services emails obtained by the Kennebec Journal under the state’s Freedom of Access Act.

The result was the termination of services for hundreds of clients, prompting DHHS staff to race to match them with new providers. Numerous laid-off employees departed with computers and smartphones that had belonged to Protea, and health officials also had to recover that equipment.

“Apparently, last week, Protea told its laid off Caseworkers to keep their agency laptops and smartphones!” wrote John Bonner, a DHHS field services manager, in a Sept. 26 email. “This has just gone beyond what I could have imagined in the realm of poor judgment… These devices have a lot of client (health information) on them.”

On Sept. 23, state health officials terminated payments to Protea through the state’s version of Medicaid, known as MaineCare, because “a credible allegation of fraud” was under investigation, they wrote in a certified letter to the agency.

According to the letter, Protea allegedly backdated assessments and treatment plans, had a history of significant noncompliance with the MaineCare Benefits Manual, did not provide information to someone who requested information about his or her treatment, and provided services to members outside of Protea’s contracted service area. The letter did not provide details about any of those allegations.

When it closed, Protea was receiving about $25,000 a week in MaineCare claims, according to a Sept. 23 email from Joan Smyrski, then the associate director of intervention, treatment and recovery services at DHHS.

Besides freezing MaineCare payments, officials also notified the Healthcare Crimes Unit of the Maine attorney general’s office, which investigates MaineCare fraud. Tim Feeley, a spokesman for the attorney general, said on Friday the department had “no comment” on whether it is investigating Protea.

BUSINESS PARTNER DENIES ROLE

After Protea’s closure, Bonner was explicit about his frustration with two men he identified as owners of the business, Leigh Leighton and Alex Tessmann, and described accusations made about both men.

“Alex Tessmanm (sic), co-owner, is accused by Leigh Leighton, co-owner, of ’embezzlement,'” Bonner wrote in an Oct. 4 email. “However, Leigh declines to file any legal motion. Some of the staff have accused Leigh of embezzlement… Alex has been completely unavailable and Leigh has shown incredible incompetence, though Leigh has made some forced effort to address many of our requests.”

Neither Leighton nor anyone employed by him responded to requests for comment in the past week.

But in a phone interview, Tessmann, who splits his time between Canada and Maine, downplayed his affiliations with Protea and said any blame he was receiving for its closure was unfounded. He denied being an owner of the business. Rather, he said he acted as an adviser to Leighton, a former employee of his, mostly in 2014 and 2015. He also owned the building where Protea was housed and allowed the business to use the space free of charge, hoping it eventually would become profitable.

The agency also offered services at sites in Wilton, Scarborough and South Portland, a DHHS program manager wrote in a Sept. 26 email.

A 2014 corporate filing for Protea lists Tessmann as chief executive officer of Protea. A 2015 filing lists him as the agency’s accountant. He’s not listed on its 2016 filing.

According to DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards, Tessmann was listed as a co-owner of Protea on a disclosure-of-ownership statement completed when the agency enrolled as a MaineCare provider.

Tessmann started and operated a similar agency, PROTEA Behavior Health Services, from 2001 until it was acquired by Sweetser, a larger agency, four years later. But besides sharing a name with the Hallowell agency that closed in the fall, the two operations were unconnected, Tessmann said.

“For anyone to infer that I had anything to do with fraudulent billing is absolutely ludicrous,” Tessmann said. “It’s a spurious allegation.”

A $300,000 HOLE

But Tessmann did help set its closure in motion.

When he learned that Protea owed the state more than $300,000, he said, he advised the agency’s third-party investor — whom he declined to identify — to stop making the revolving loans that had helped the agency get by between MaineCare payments.

“When the claim was made by state for about $300,000, the investor said, ‘I’m not sinking any more money into that hole,'” Tessmann said. “The investor lost a large of amount of money on that, as did I.”

Bonner, the DHHS manager, said in a Sept. 19 email that Leighton reportedly accused Tessmann of withdrawing $20,000 in cash from Protea, leading to financial upheaval.

But Tessmann said he withdrew no cash before the agency’s closure. Rather, Tessmann said, Protea closed after the routine transfer of an unidentified amount of cash to the third party investor, who was owed money by the agency.

Tessmann now owns a home in the Ellsworth area and other properties around the state, but he said banks may foreclose on them soon, in part because of losses related to the Protea closure.

Although Leighton reportedly accused Tessmann of embezzlement, Tessmann defended his business partner against the allegations of fraud, instead placing blame for the more than $300,000 in owed payments on poor bookkeeping by the agency’s employees. In 2015, one of those employees was a woman who died of cancer, he said, but he could not remember her name.

“She didn’t disclose to Leigh that she was terminally ill,” he said. “She took a dramatic turn for the worse and passed away rather quickly. Leigh discovered, to his horror at the time, that she had basically just stacked up all kinds of files and paperwork in a locked cabinet in the office. That’s when Leigh discovered he had a serious problem.”

Edwards, the DHHS spokeswomen, declined to identify how MaineCare officials discovered Protea owed more than $300,000, citing the ongoing investigation.

FALLOUT FROM CLOSURE

Immediately after Protea closed in September, advocates for the mentally ill and drug-addicted criticized the Hallowell agency for leaving its vulnerable clients in the lurch. About 35 of its approximately 350 clients were recovering drug users who took Suboxone, a medication that helps people ease themselves off opiates such as heroin and prescription painkillers.

“Everyone was told to find a new provider,” said Sophie Gabrion, a spokeswoman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, in early October. “Two people I communicated with were given prescriptions that would last no more than a month and were told to find a new provider.”

It can be dangerous for those who are using Suboxone to lose access to the medication suddenly, said Darren Ripley, coordinator of the Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery, in early October. Without it, he said, the recovering user will ask, “Where am I going to get it? Where can I go to receive that, or am I now going to have to go back (to using something more powerful)?”

Patient privacy laws prevented DHHS from providing information about individual clients, but officials did share emailed exchanges between staff members and treatment providers around Maine who began offering their services.

Throughout October, Bonner made progress. To allow patients to continue receiving Suboxone treatment, for example, the physician who prescribed it at Protea began working for a different agency, Blue Sky Counseling, in Waterville. By Oct. 4, Bonner also reported finding placements for up to 100 clients who received community integration services.

But Bonner also highlighted the difficulty of tracking Protea’s former clients without the structure of their former provider. He compared the process to one that followed the sudden closure of Merrymeeting Behavior Health Services in Brunswick last spring, which dislocated 400 clients and 170 workers.

“When agencies collapse, the leadership is often not available, not collaborative or just indifferent,” Bonner wrote in an Oct. 5 email. “They are facing bankruptcy and their staff are facing loss or change of jobs, and loss of income. They have nothing to lose by doing nothing.”

In the emailed exchanges between DHHS staff members after Protea closed, they expressed concern about either Leighton or Tessmann trying to open another addiction treatment business and said MaineCare officials would be on guard in case they tried to do so.

“I talked with the co-owner of a business with close connections to Protea,” Bonner wrote on Sept. 30. “This individual is not aware of (Tessmann’s) involvement with any other agencies, but notes that, in his opinion, ‘Mr. Tessmann should never be allowed to operate a (mental health) agency in the State of Maine.'”

Tessmann, though, defended his past ventures and said he is reluctant to enter similar arrangements anytime soon.

“I’ve taken a total financial bloodbath on this thing with Protea,” he said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker