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Agency linked to Filipino nurses focus of Medicaid probe

A home health care agency whose owner helped spark the Suffolk prosecution of 10 Filipino nurses must give back more than $3.7 million in wrongfully obtained Medicaid funds, state and federal authorities said yesterday.

Excellent Home Care, a Brooklyn-based agency that provides services in Nassau, knowingly employed home aides with fraudulent certifications, according to a joint probe by the state attorney general and the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn.

Excellent's owner, Benjamin Landa, also owns SentosaCare, the nursing home group that became embroiled in a labor dispute with the immigrant nurses in 2006. The nurses resigned en masse and were indicted later by a Suffolk grand jury. The charges were thrown out by an appeals court in January.

Excellent, along with Extended Home Care and B&H Health Care Services, both Brooklyn-based, settled civil litigation with state and federal prosecutors without acknowledging wrongdoing, said Jerome Levy, a Manhattan attorney for Excellent.

"There was never any criminal allegation," Levy said Thursday. "We didn't know the aides were phonies."

B&H settled for $10.7 million and Extended Home Care agreed to pay almost $9.5 million. Their representatives did not return calls.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said in a statement that about $14 million of the $24 million settlement would be returned to the state. The rest goes to the federal government.

"The size of this settlement underscores the seriousness of the allegations," Cuomo's statement said.

Landa's SentosaCare became enmeshed in a nursing labor dispute in April 2006, when more than two dozen of the group's immigrant Filipino nurses resigned at once in 2006, complaining about working conditions. Landa and attorney Howard Fensterman, a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser, personally asked Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota to press charges. Spota, a Democrat, once received a $1,500 campaign contribution from Fensterman.

Spota began a probe leading to a grand jury indictment of 10 nurses from Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Smithtown on charges of endangering pediatric patients by quitting.

Spota has said the campaign contribution played no role in the prosecution.

In January, the state Appellate Division, Second Department, ended the prosecution, saying it essentially forced the nurses into involuntary servitude.

The nurses' case took on a political tinge when Landa's contributions to a fund controlled by Sen. Charles Schumer were uncovered. Landa and SentosaCare affiliates gave almost $75,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006 after Schumer wrote letters to Philippines government officials, including President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, asking them to meet Landa to resolve the dispute with the nurses.

The meeting with the president did not happen but SentosaCare officials did get an audience with the Phillippines U.N. mission in New York.

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