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Former NBA players accused of defrauding health and welfare benefit plan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today prosecutors announced charges against 19 people, all but one former NBA players, for an alleged health insurance claim scam. At least 16 of them were arrested. They're accused of defrauding the NBA's health and welfare benefit plan out of $4 million. Ben Golliver is the national NBA writer for The Washington Post and joins us now. Welcome.

BEN GOLLIVER: Glad to be here.

CHANG: So what exactly are these former players accused of doing? Like, how did they carry out this alleged scheme?

GOLLIVER: Well, if true, this is a very sad story. In 2016, the NBA and the players association decided to expand health care benefits to all retired players. Now, the idea was, many of these players are getting up there in age. They may still suffer the effects of injuries from their playing careers. And there would be a pool of money available to all former players to access to, you know, essentially cover their medical expenses.

Now, what these former players are alleged to have done is essentially create fake invoices for dental procedures or other health procedures that they never received, submit those to the league's health care plan for reimbursement and then pocket the money. The leader of the alleged scheme was Terrence Williams, a former player who, according to prosecutors, was recruiting other former players and receiving kickbacks for the - you know, handing over the paperwork to allow those players to submit similar claims.

CHANG: Right. I mean, some of these were pretty well-known players, right? We have Sebastian Telfair as one of the accused, Glen "Big Baby" Davis. You just mentioned Terrence Williams, who was the first-round draft pick in 2009. Can you just tell me, how did these activities that are described in the indictment - how did they first come to light?

GOLLIVER: Well, it seems like they were pretty sloppy. Now, this has been an investigation that's been going on for years and years. But in one example, three players submitted paperwork for undergoing the same dental procedure on the same teeth on the same day, right?

CHANG: Oops. Yeah.

GOLLIVER: And so that probably raised some red flags there, for sure. And another player, you know, claimed that he had received a procedure in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, when he was actually, at that same time, playing overseas for a different team. And so I think this was a matter of trying to accumulate as much evidence as possible to make sure that these charges would stick.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, how have any of these accused players or their lawyers responded to the charges so far?

GOLLIVER: Well, everyone's stayed pretty tight-lipped so far. I think the biggest development is that one of the former players is actually a current assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers. He was hired in August. His name is Milt Palacio. Now, he has been placed on administrative leave by the Blazers until further notice. And so that's a major development. Otherwise, the NBA has said in a statement that they released today that they would cooperate fully with the U.S. attorney's office. And the NBA players union that was so instrumental in creating this pool of funding in the first place said that they would only continue to monitor the matter. They didn't go into much greater detail. We're still waiting to hear from the other players who, as you noted at the top, have been arrested in most cases.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, tell us, what kind of penalties could these defendants be facing if they are indeed convicted of the charges that they're facing?

GOLLIVER: Well, fraud's very serious, especially on the federal level. So, I mean, you know, we're looking at, you know, years of prison time, potentially. We'll see exactly what the prosecutor's strategy is, though. I mean, they've clearly cast a very wide net by arresting 18 former players.

CHANG: Right. Right.

GOLLIVER: And it's possible, sometimes, that they would want some of those players simply to testify against the ringleader. But that's speculation on my part. But they're looking at serious charges. You know, health care fraud is no joke.

CHANG: Right. That is Ben Golliver of The Washington Post. Thank you very much.

GOLLIVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.