Guilty pleas for defrauding a little-known federal program

by Ben Vernia | October 28th, 2010

One of the attractions to being a Justice Department attorney handling fraud matters is that you get to learn about the enormous variety of federal programs – because they all are likely to be the victims of fraud. On October 28, the Department of Justice announced the guilty pleas of an owner of a company that participated in the FCC’s Video Relay Service (VRS) program, and his brother, a former executive with the company. What’s VRS?

According to the indictment, VRS is an online video translation service that allows people with hearing disabilities to communicate with hearing individuals through the use of interpreters and Web cameras. A person with a hearing disability who wants to communicate with a hearing person can do so by contacting a VRS provider through an audio and video Internet connection. The VRS provider, in turn, employs a video interpreter to view and interpret the hearing disabled person’s signed conversation and relay the signed conversation orally to a hearing person. VRS is funded by fees assessed by telecommunications providers to telephone customers, and is provided at no cost to the VRS user.

The case has been underway since last year, when the Department unveiled indictments against several others. According to today’s press release:

John T.C. Yeh, the owner of Viable Communications Inc., and his brother, Joseph Yeh, the former vice president for corporate strategy and second in charge for Viable, pleaded guilty today to engaging in a conspiracy to defraud the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Video Relay Service (VRS) program, announced Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division and John G. Perren, Acting Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

John Yeh, 63, and Joseph Yeh, 65, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano in Trenton, N.J., to conspiracy to commit mail fraud. John and Joseph Yeh were indicted on Nov. 19, 2009, along with Anthony Mowl, Viable’s former assistant vice president of business development; Donald Tropp, Viable’s former human resources manager; and the Viable corporate entity. The defendants are alleged to have submitted a total of approximately $55 million in VRS claims to the FCC.

In pleading guilty, John and Joseph Yeh admitted that beginning in approximately fall 2007, they conspired with others to pay individuals to make fraudulent VRS phone calls using Viable’s VRS service. According to the pleas, John and Joseph Yeh paid Mowl and Tropp, who then would pay others to make the fraudulent phone calls using Viable’s VRS service. Viable then submitted the fraudulent call minutes to the FCC and was paid approximately $390 per hour for all VRS calls that Viable processed.

* * *

At sentencing, scheduled for Feb. 9, 2011, John and Joseph Yeh each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and mandatory restitution and forfeiture.

Mowl and Tropp pleaded guilty in January 2010 to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Co-defendant Viable is awaiting trial on the charges in the indictment. An indictment is merely an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.

In addition to the indictment charging the Yehs, Mowl, Tropp and Viable, five other indictments were unsealed on Nov. 19, 2009, charging an additional 22 people with engaging in a scheme to steal millions of dollars from the FCC’s VRS program. The indictments charge owners and employees of the following six companies with engaging in a scheme to defraud the FCC’s VRS program:

  • Viable Communications Inc. of Rockville, Md.;
  • * Master Communications LLC of Las Vegas;
  • * KL Communications LLC of Phoenix;
  • * Mascom LLC of Austin, Texas;
  • * Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Interpreting Services Inc. (DHIS) of New York and New Jersey;
  • * Innovative Communication Services for the Deaf Corp. (ICSD) of Miami Lakes, Fla.; and
  • * Deaf Studio 29 of Huntington Beach, Calif.

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