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Charges filed in kickback scheme

The charges stem from the construction of Spinal Cord Injury Center at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO and PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published November 18, 2005

TAMPA - Federal prosecutors have charged two more contractors and a medical equipment manufacturer with participating in a kickback scheme at James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

A third contractor pleaded guilty in the case and agreed to cooperate with the FBI.

The charges stem from construction of the 70-bed, $20.6-million Spinal Cord Injury Center at Haley, which opened in February 2002.

According to an indictment filed late Wednesday, Joel Velasco, who oversaw the project for Dawson Building Contractors Inc. of Alabama, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the government.

Velasco also was charged with soliciting a kickback and destruction or falsification of records to stymie criminal investigators from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Hans Sigvardsson, president of Massachusetts-based Liko Inc., a subcontractor on the project, was charged with paying a kickback of $63,000 to Velasco. In return, the company received favorable treatment on the contract, the indictment said.

Liko Inc., which provided patient lifts in the specialty unit, also was named as a defendant.

In a telephone interview Thursday night, Velasco said he could not comment.

In a previous interview with the St. Petersburg Times, however, Velasco said Liko Inc. paid him the $63,000 for legitimate work he did for the company on the side.

In a statement issued by his attorney, Sigvardsson denied doing anything illegal.

"Liko Inc. and Mr. Sigvardsson categorically deny the allegations in the indictment," Boston attorney Ben Clements said.

"They have no intention of trying this case in the press. Mr. Sigvardsson and the company look forward to their day in court and are confident they will be fully vindicated."

John Pickens, regional VA spokesman, said, "This is a matter between Liko and the courts."

He declined to comment further.

In August, Peter Castelli, 62, of Tampa, a former Liko Inc. vice president, pleaded guilty to charges he paid the $63,000 kickback to win a contract during the construction project.

He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 26.

Castelli, too, has said he did nothing illegal. He pleaded guilty, he said, to avoid the cost of the trial. He told the Times he wore a wire in conversations with Velasco as part of the FBI investigation.

Five years ago, the VA awarded Dawson Building Contractors Inc. a contract to build the Spinal Cord Injury Center at Haley.

The Alabama company picked Liko Inc. to install the lifts - or slings - used to move patients. The Spinal Cord Injury Center has since treated dozens of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Castelli and the indictment point to Velasco, the Dawson project manager, as the brains behind the kickback scheme.

Velasco asked Liko Inc. to provide the Alabama contractor with a new pickup truck for the job site, according to Castelli.

Castelli discussed Velasco's request with Sigvardsson, he said. Sigvardsson authorized him to buy the truck. Velasco changed his request to two trucks and finally cash, Castelli said.

In January 2001, Sigvardsson authorized payment of $71,570 to Castelli as a "bonus" to cover the kickback payment, according to the indictment.

Sigvardsson deposited the money into Castelli's bank account and then Castelli issued the $63,000 cashier's check to Velasco, the indictment stated.

Velasco told the Times previously that Castelli ran into problems installing the lifts, and turned to him for help. Velasco said he helped design the system and worked for Liko Inc. 12 to 20 hours a week for three months.

Castelli has characterized Velasco's explanation for receiving the money as ludicrous.

Velasco and Sigvardsson are expected to appear at a hearing in federal court Nov. 30.

[Last modified November 18, 2005, 01:27:15]


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