FORT MYERS — After a three-week trial, former Health Management Associates executive Josh Putter was found not guilty Thursday of falsifying a document during a federal investigation.
Federal prosecutors said Putter — who was Charlotte Regional Medical Center’s CEO from 1998 to 2005 before becoming an HMA district president — wrote a letter in 2008 that was an attempt to cover up a kickback scheme between the two HMA-owned Charlotte County hospitals and North Port physicians group Primary Care Associates in the mid-2000s during an HMA compliance investigation.
Putter’s defense team said there was no kickback scheme.
The jury of 12 deliberated for about a half an hour late Wednesday and for 45 minutes Thursday before rendering its verdict.
“The system worked,” said Scott Weinberg, one of Putter’s attorneys. “The jury was presented the facts, saw there was no crime and found him ‘not guilty.’ ”
Putter left the area in 2011 to take a job as chief operating officer of Boston’s Steward Health Care System. He took a leave of absence in June 2013 and later quit. In October 2013, he was indicted in the Middle District of Florida, and that led to the trial that ended with Thursday’s verdict.
Putter, 49, declined comment Thursday.
The document in question was an October 2008 letter Putter wrote amid an HMA compliance investigation stemming from an alleged quid-pro-quo agreement.
The agreement is the basis of an ongoing lawsuit brought against HMA by former Charlotte Regional CEO Bradley Nurkin. The lawsuit claims North Port physicians group Primary Care Associates received kickbacks — in the form of money and free office space — for referring patients to the two HMA-owned Charlotte County hospitals.
The letter came after HMA had demanded that Primary Care repay money it had received from HMA as part of the alleged scheme, and Putter is accused of preparing a handwritten letter detailing Primary Care’s response to that demand, court records show. The letter was signed by a Primary Care doctor, but prosecutors say Putter actually wrote it and then sent it to Charlotte Regional.
“(Putter) was essentially controlling negotiations on both sides,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Lazarus said in court. “And the defendant’s obstruction worked — a settlement was reached.”
And, Lazarus said, HMA was conducting a compliance check — legally, a “federal investigation” — at the same time as payback talks between Primary Care and Charlotte Regional. The letter, he maintains, could have influenced those discussions.
Putter was indicted in October 2013.
“This is the most important day of his life,” Chris Brown, another one of Putter’s attorneys, told the jury Wednesday before deliberations began.
Putter’s defense team of four said the letter was written to reflect the signee’s thoughts, even though he didn’t physically write it. And, they said it was written after the compliance investigation was already completed.
Moreover, Putter had no intention to thwart any investigation — a requirement for a conviction, Brown added.
“When he’s helping with this letter, he isn’t thinking this is an investigation,” Brown said. “He’s thinking this is a debt collection.”
Putter’s defense said the federal charge came about due to the government’s inability to prosecute him in connection with the alleged kickback scheme.
“The problem is, the government started looking into kickback allegations, and they couldn’t prove that,” Brown told the jury. “So they went after the letter.”
The federal lawsuit about the alleged scheme was transferred to the District of Columbia in April. The case was postponed in June, and the two sides have been ordered to try and work out a deal on their own. If an agreement isn’t reached, the case could be reopened at some point.
Community Health Systems acquired HMA earlier this year. CHS is now leasing Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala.