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Cherry Hill man gets 70 months in prison for $2.5M Medicaid fraud

Cesar Tavera headed the nonprofit Nueva Vida Behavioral Health Center of New Jersey, a nonprofit that provides mental health services to Camden's poorest residents.

Agents take evidence from the Nueva Vida Behavioral Health Center of N.J. in Camden.
Agents take evidence from the Nueva Vida Behavioral Health Center of N.J. in Camden.Read moreAllison Steele

Cesar Tavera, the former executive director of a community health center in Camden, was sentenced Monday to more than five years in prison for stealing money from the nonprofit, which was created to provide mental health services for the city's underserved residents.

In addition to 70 months in prison, three years of supervised release was ordered by U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman in Camden. The judge also issued a $2.5 million restitution order.

In May, Tavera pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $1.5 million and conspiracy to commit health-care fraud. Had he gone to trial and been convicted, Tavera could have faced more than 10 years in prison.

Two others, including Tavera's wife, Maria, and a therapist, Andres Ayala, pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier this year. Maria Tavera pleaded guilty in June to embezzling $40,000 from the nonprofit.

Maria Tavera, who was an administrator for the center, is scheduled for sentencing next month, and Ayala in December.

Authorities said Cesar Tavera, 53, of Cherry Hill, embezzled from Nueva Vida Behavioral Health Center of New Jersey, using the money for his family and for personal use that included gambling jaunts to SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia, meals, and travel in the United States and abroad. In 2015, authorities said, Tavera withdrew $35,000 from the center's bank account while at the casino. He also funded his daughter's music career, and paid "no-show" employees, prosecutors said.

New Jersey Medicaid rules require that people giving mental health therapy to Medicaid recipients must either be licensed or have a master's degree in mental health. Tavera had several unlicensed and unqualified individuals treat Medicaid recipients and then billed Medicaid as if qualified therapists had treated the patients, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. Tavera also treated Medicaid patients even though he was not qualified, prosecutors said.

Among the fraudulent billings, prosecutors said, were that if a mother received therapy without her child, Nueva Vida would bill Medicaid for a session with the mother and a separate session with the child. Nueva Vida billed Medicaid for short sessions as if they lasted for 45 minutes. To cover up his crimes, Tavera created false records to pass Medicaid audits, prosecutors said.

In 2016, federal agents raided the office in Camden. Cesar Tavera founded the clinic to provide mental-health services for the city's Spanish-speaking population.

Tavera's attorney could not immediately be reached for comment after the sentencing. There was no answer Monday at a home phone number listed for Tavera in Cherry Hill.