Federal prosecutors say Sonja Emery fabricated her extensive credentials and professional experience in a scam that collected nearly $2 million in consulting fees over five years.
A healthcare consultant indicted in Michigan for allegedly falsifying her credentials and work experience was arrested this week in California, where she's collected more than $1 million in consulting fees over the past three years from a nonprofit health plan.
Sonja Emery, 52, who has been known to use a long list of aliases, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Detroit on 11 counts of fraud and tax evasion, for a scam that ran from 2011 through 2014. She's been accused of continuing to deceive her employers since.
Emery was arrested on Tuesday and appeared before a federal judge in Oakland, California, who authorized her release on $50,000 unsecured bond. Prosecutors have appealed the decision.
In court documents urging Emery's detention without bond, federal prosecutors said she has "a long-established pattern dating back to at least 2006 of obtaining healthcare related employment using false names and work history."
"This past behavior reveals Emery's remarkable ability to obtain employment under false pretenses and her willingness to use false identities," prosecutors said.
A government investigation linked Emery to eight different Social Security numbers and three different names, which she gave to employers and law enforcement agencies in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, and Wisconsin, according to court documents.
She also allegedly claimed to be a registered nurse licensed in two states, but an investigation showed that she used the licensure numbers of two other people.
Apparently, healthcare organizations weren't the only ones fooled by Emery.
Federal prosecutors said Emery convinced local prosecutors in fraud cases on at least two occasions that she suffered from "brain tumor surgery" and cancer that "left her blind," without memory, and incapacitated—none of which was true. The documents Emery used to support her medical claims were forgeries, federal prosecutors said.
Contra Costa Health Plan
Since the alleged events took place in Michigan, Emery has been a contract consultant at Contra Costa Health Plan, a county-owned, nonprofit health plan, for the past three years.
A review of Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors records found that "Sonja Robinson, RN," doing business as "Healthcare Solutions USA," was unanimously awarded annual contracts worth $384,000 each year from 2016 through 2018 "to provide consultation on utilization review, authorization and referral processes for the Contra Costa Health Plan."
Contra Costa Health Plan said Robinson was paid about $960,000 since January, 2016. A spokesperson said the health plan "first learned about the allegations against Sonja Robinson on May 22, 2018, and took immediate steps on that day to prevent her from providing further services to the department. Ms. Robinson's contract was terminated effective May 25, 2018, and she has not provided service to CCHP since May 22."
CCHP said Robinson was hired through a national healthcare consulting firm, and was contracted to provide services in the Utilization Management Unit, where she performed administrative duties and did not provide direct patient care.
Court records indicate Contra Costa is at least the eighth employer Emery has duped.
"The jobs that Emery has repeatedly sought also raise substantial concerns about Emery's ongoing danger to the community," prosecutors said, noting that Emery successfully obtained jobs with titles such as director of medical services and interim Chief Clinical Operations Improvement Officer.
"The government does not presently have evidence that anyone was physically harmed as a byproduct of Emery taking these positions. Nonetheless, if Emery were to flee, consistent with her prior pattern of criminal activity, she likely would attempt to obtain another health-care related position, which could endanger patient welfare and pose a danger to the community," prosecutors said.
The Michigan indictment, unsealed this week, said that Emery allegedly told clients and employers that she was a registered nurse, had worked in healthcare management and consultation for 25 years, and held degrees including a bachelor of science in nursing, master's degrees in health administration, and a doctor of philosophy degree—none of which was true.
She allegedly provided employers and clients with extensive false or forged documents and references validating her fabricated background.
Emery used fake Social Security numbers, misstated her tax liabilities, filed bogus W4 forms with the IRS, and lied about her tax status in a multi-year effort to shake federal auditors, according to the indictment.
John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.