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People v. Rowjee

September 30, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Campbell


Following a bench trial in the circuit court of Cook County, defendant psychiatrist Dr. Zehra Rowjee was found guilty of vendor fraud and theft against the Illinois Department of Public Aid in excess of $10,000. The trial court sentenced defendant to six months of imprisonment in the Cook County Department of Corrections, restitution of $10,000, 48 days of community service, and 30 months of probation. Defendant now appeals her conviction and sentence.

The record on appeal indicates the following facts. The parties stipulated that during the period from 1991 through 1993, the State of Illinois issued defendant 29 checks totaling $58,924.20 in payment of public aid vouchers submitted by defendant for treatment of indigent patients.

Zainab Akbari, defendant's sister, testified that during the time period at issue, she was employed by defendant part-time to answer the telephone and prepare bills at defendant's private office. Akbari's duties included submitting bill to the Illinois Department of Public Aid. Akbari testified that defendant saw patients at the office and also saw patients at Lutheran General Hospital on an inpatient basis.

Akbari also testified that on her desk was a sheet of paper for each month, listing patients and dates. According to Akbari, every time defendant saw a patient at the hospital, defendant would return to the office and circle that date, so that Akbari would know defendant had seen the patient that day. Akbari further testified that in her experience, defendant would make entries to the charts 99% of the time when she saw patients.

Illinois State Police Sergeant Cleotha Jones testified that in April 1994, he was assigned to the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. On April 24, 1994, Sergeant Jones interviewed defendant at her home. Sergeant Jones informed defendant that he had talked to several of her Public Aid patients, for whom she had billed on a daily basis, and that the patients had said that they had not been treated on a daily basis.

According to Sergeant Jones, defendant asked what would happen if she had billed for services she had not provided. Sergeant Jones responded that it would be up to the Illinois Attorney General. Defendant then asked whether it would be possible to get probation if she paid the money back. Sergeant Jones responded that before it could be determined what the Illinois Attorney General would do with the case, she would have to say how she false billed the Department of Public Aid. According to Sergeant Jones, defendant gave an example where, in a seven-day period, she might bill for five days when she had not seen the patient on two of those days.

Sergeant Jones then identified People's Exhibits IV1 through IV29 as Public Aid billing documents or invoices prepared in defendant's name. Sergeant Jones also identified People's Exhibit S-1 as a schedule for some of defendant's Public Aid billing, containing patient names and identification numbers, service dates, amounts billed, procedure codes, amounts paid, voucher numbers and document control numbers. Sergeant Jones testified that Exhibits IV1 through IV29 appeared in People's Exhibit S-1.

Sergeant Jones stated that he "had a hand" in the creation of People's Exhibit S-1. Sergeant Jones testified that he went through a computer printout of defendant's Public Aid billing, then went through defendant's patient files from Lutheran General Hospital, looking for dates where there was no entry. People's Exhibit S-1 purports to list days where defendant billed where there was no matching documentation by defendant in the patient's chart. Sergeant Jones could offer only a layman's assessment as to whether particular handwriting was that of defendant. The record on appeal contains People's Exhibit S-1, which shows a total "variance" of $19,239.55.

On cross-examination, Sergeant Jones testified that defendant was shown a computer-generated list of defendant's Public Aid billing. Defendant was not able to identify particular patients or dates where false billing may have occurred, or any specific amount of false billing. In addition, Sergeant Jones testified that he did not tell defendant during their conversation that this was a criminal investigation.

The State also called three defendant's former psychiatric patients. Each testified that defendant had not seen them on particular occasions. However, each of the former patients also testified that they could not remember various facts relating to their treatment by defendant. For example, one patient testified that he could not remember telling defendant certain personal facts about himself that had been entered into his patient file by defendant.

Nurse Barry Coleman testified that he had occasion to work with defendant at Lutheran General Hospital during the time period at issue. Coleman worked the night shift for at least part of 1991. Based on a familiarity with defendant's work habits, Coleman estimated that saw a patient, defendant would put a note on that patient's chart "probably over 90 percent of the time." Coleman did not know whether defendant had a responsibility to chart a patient on a daily basis if the patient's condition had not changed.

The State's exhibits were admitted into evidence. The State then rested. Defendant moved for a finding in her favor, which the trial court denied.

Defendant called Registered Nurse Sally McCarthy as a witness. Like Nurse Coleman, Nurse McCarthy had worked with defendant at Lutheran General Hospital during the time period at issue, but primarily on the day shift. McCarthy testified that she would see defendant interacting with patients at the hospital between three and five times weekly.

McCarthy stated that therapy would be routinely noted on a patient's chart. McCarthy added that sometimes it was difficult to find a patient's chart, due to factors like the patient's participation in group therapy or medical testing performed outside the psychiatric unit. McCarthy ...

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