G. Ford Gilbert, founder of a chain of controversial diabetes treatment clinics, pleaded guilty in federal court to one charge of conspiring to commit bribery, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alabama.
He had previously faced seven counts of federal health care fraud, bribery, and other charges in Alabama federal district court related to an alleged “pyramid scheme” with his network of diabetes insulin infusion clinics. The other six are to be dismissed as part of a plea deal with prosecutors.
Gilbert, a Sacramento lawyer, along with an Alabama legislator and a lobbyist, were indicted in April for their efforts to influence the passage of a law that would force a major insurer in the state, Blue Cross Blue Shield, to pay for Gilbert’s “Artificial Pancreas Treatment,” which the insurer had stopped reimbursing.
As a condition of the deal, Gilbert, who sold clinic franchises to investor-owners under the name “Trina Health,” will likely face six months in prison instead of the maximum five years of incarceration, plus six months of home detention. The precise sentence and the amount of his fine, a maximum of $250,000, will be determined by a U.S. district judge at a hearing in a few months, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alabama.
“It is my hope that this case sends a strong message to business owners and special interest groups who might seek to obtain legislative assistance through improper means,” U.S. Attorney Louis V. Franklin Sr. said in a statement.
Won’t quit diabetes work
Gilbert had pitched the weekly or twice monthly “pulsed” insulin infusions as a near-miracle treatment for diabetic complications: healing wounds, reducing hypertension, reversing heart disease and cognitive impairment, and other adverse macro- and microvascular effects.
Asked for a comment, Richard Jaffe, Gilbert’s attorney in Birmingham, replied in an email that the plea deal “was the best decision for our 71-year-old client. It was a heart wrenching decision for Ford, but he accepted responsibility and will learn from his mistakes.
“This agreement will allow Ford to spend many years developing diabetes treatments that he has devoted his life to improving since his daughter contracted the disease when she was a child. He has learned some valuable lessons and looks forward to putting this matter behind him.” Jaffe said.
The judge could elect to impose a different sentence, assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan S. Ross told MedPage Today. However, the reduced term is the likely outcome. “The parties would not have entered into this agreement if we did not feel reasonably comfortable that this is the likely disposition of the case.”
Ross said that according to Gilbert’s own statements to investigators and federal grand jurors, “the business model for Trina Health was really based on opening clinics, not that the clinics themselves were going to be profitable… Gilbert sold people on a promise that was not likely to ever be fulfilled.”
Federal officials alleged in a filing unsealed last July that the Trina organization met the definition of a pyramid scheme based on findings during the investigation in Alabama. “Gilbert sold license agreements to [several groups of] folks in Alabama, and [they] could then either open up Trina clinics or then resell some of their territorial rights to other people and so on,” Ross said.
“Ford Gilbert was at the top of this pyramid scheme,” Ross said. “A general pattern of behavior by Ford Gilbert [was] the rules don’t apply to him, that he’s the smartest guy in the room,” Ross continued. “It’s was all part and parcel of a general theme: get money for Ford Gilbert and take advantage of those who are willing to believe in this treatment.”
“And today, we saw a humbled person who admitted his misdeeds. We’re happy with that,” Ross said.
Many of the franchised Trina clinics went out of business in 2015, 2016, and 2017 after insurers and Medicare notified clinic owners that the treatment was not reimbursable as billed. Some others remain operational but without the Trina name.
As MedPage Today reported previously, little scientific evidence to support the treatment has been published, and academic diabetologists were skeptical that it could work as advertised.
Trying to raise money
Ross said that despite the reduced number of counts in the plea from seven to one, investigators “had concerns about the legality of a lot of what Mr. Gilbert was doing in Alabama, elsewhere in the United States, and internationally as well.”
He said prosecutors hope that, with his sentence and guilty plea, “it will incapacitate him and deter him from engaging in other fraudulent schemes… and trying to raise money while under indictment.”
Ross declined to say whether investigations were underway in other states where Trina clinics operated, but added that he would not “dissuade” such speculation. Ross also declined to say whether, as part of the plea deal, Gilbert gave names of individuals in other states who might be involved in fraudulent activities.
In California, Gilbert is facing a patent infringement lawsuit over allegations he stole intellectual property from Thomas Aoki, MD, who had developed a pulsed insulin infusion procedure and had partnered with Gilbert at one time.
Cases against the remaining defendants, former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Martin Connors and outgoing state Rep. Randy Davis, are not expected to go to trial, Ross told the Montgomery Advertiser.
Former state Rep. Jack Williams has signed a pretrial diversion agreement, which means charges against him will be dropped. Former Alabama House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, who at one point owned part of a clinic and received payments from Gilbert, allegedly to influence legislation, served a three-month prison term as part of a separate case and was not charged in the Trina affair.