Business scammed state out of more than $600,000

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — A Mountlake Terrace man faces years in prison for scamming the state out of more than $600,000 through his language interpretation business.

Philip Ward and his wife Kitzia Huerta formerly owned Hispanic Voices in Mountlake Terrace. The business had a contract with the state Department of Labor and Industries to provide interpreters to Spanish-speaking workers with injury claims. The interpreters were to be used during medical and vocational appointments.

Investigators alleged that Ward and Huerta overbilled the state for years. Court documents say that the couple also operated other businesses in direct conflict with the state contract.

Ward on Monday pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree theft in Thurston County Superior Court. His wife pleaded guilty last month. They are scheduled to be sentenced next year.

The couple agreed to pay back the tens of thousands of dollars that they defrauded from the state. The details were hammered out under a plea agreement reached with prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office.

Labor and Industries fraud unit began investigating the Snohomish County business about four years ago.

Investigators discovered that the address the couple gave the state for Hispanic Voices was a rented postal box in Redmond. They discovered that the couple did the same for a marketing and referral business, where Ward was listed as the company president. Investigators found both businesses operating out of a building in Mountlake Terrace.

Search warrants were served in December 2008. Investigators scoured reams of documents to build a case against the couple. Through the search investigators learned that the couple billed for services that were never provided and inflated bills.

Investigators came up with thousands of instances of the business billing the state for interpretation services “that could not have possibly been rendered given the record relating to location, number of claimants, and time frames,” the investigator wrote in court papers.

The investigation showed that the couple required interpreters to leave part of their billing forms blank. They would then tack on 30 minutes to several hours to most appointments. Investigators found more than 10,000 incidents of this type of overbilling.

The business also used interpreters that were not certified, in violation of the contract.

Additionally, as part of the state contract the business was banned from using any interpreter that also provided legal or medical services.

The couple, both interpreters, had a vested interest in a referral program and a medical clinic. Staff members with Hispanic Voices told investigators that they were advising clients where to go for medical and legal services.

“What becomes immediately apparent is the vested financial interest Hispanic Voices had in both acquiring and retaining Hispanic claimants, and then in pushing them into the services offered by the other related companies,” investigators wrote in a probable cause affidavit.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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