East Tennessee one of 12 federal districts in pilot opioid fraud and abuse detection unit

Becky Campbell • Updated Aug 8, 2017 at 10:50 PM

East Tennessee was one of 12 federal court districts in the U.S. to be part of a Department of Justice pilot program designed to detect opioid abuse and fraud, and U.S. Attorney Nancy Stallard Harr provided some details Tuesday on how that will unfold.

“This program is specifically aimed at identifying opioid fraud and abuse in the healthcare fraud context,” Harr said. “Health care providers, clinic operators, nurse practitioners; anybody who is fraudulently and illegally distributing, that’s who we are going to be looking for.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the unit’s formation last week and designated 12 of 94 federal districts where the program will be implemented. The districts reach coast-to-coast and target some of the areas most affected by the distribution and abuse of opioids, including southern West Virginia and East Tennessee.

“The Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit will focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud using data to identify and prosecute individuals that are contributing to this prescription opioid epidemic,” Sessions said in last week’s announcement.

“Additionally, as part of the program, the (DOJ) will fund 12 experienced assistant U.S. attorneys for a three-year term to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting health care fraud related to prescription opioids, including pill mill schemes and pharmacies that unlawfully divert or dispense prescription opioids for illegitimate purposes,” Sessions said.

Harr said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Lewen, an experienced prosecutor in the Knoxville office, was selected to fill the special prosecutor position. While Lewen will maintain his base in Knoxville, Harr said he will work throughout the district, which stretches from Chattanooga to Mountain City.

“In these cases, we’re going after pharmacists who turn a blind eye to questionable prescriptions, doctors who prescribe high numbers of opioids,” Harr said. She even hopes there can be collaboration between law enforcement and death investigators to determine where those who die from opioid overdoses received their prescriptions.

Prosecuting those in the profession of distributing drugs is nothing new to Harr or her office.

“We have a history of doing it. We have several ongoing cases even as we speak. We have cases under investigation, cases pending trial from Chattanooga to Bristol,” she said.

Harr also said her office will work closely with local officials in the effort to combat opioid fraud and abuse, including the three Upper East Tennessee District Attorneys — Tony Clark in the First District, Barry Staubus in the Second District and Dan Armstrong in the Third District — who have filed a lawsuit in Sullivan County against pharmacy companies as well as local providers for their part in fueling the opioid epidemic here.

“Sadly, statistics show that Tennessee is one of the most highly opioid-addicted states in the country. While our current Assistant U.S. Attorneys have already made tremendous efforts toward combating opioid-related healthcare fraud in the district, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is pleased to receive these additional resources, including funding for an aggressive prosecutor, to enhance these endeavors,” Harr said.

Lewen has served as a federal prosecutor in East Tennessee for nearly 10 years. Before that, he served on active duty for five years in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, serving in Korea, Hawaii, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He has experience in prosecuting a wide range of federal crimes, including large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering organizations, violent crimes, public corruption, and complex white-collar and corporate fraud crimes. Two of the higher profile defendants Lewen has prosecuted in U.S. District Court include former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner and bank extortionist Michael Benanti.

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