The Lowdown on Takedowns
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a battery of other federal law enforcement officials today announced the “largest health care fraud takedown” in U.S. history, with 412 charged defendants, including 56 doctors, accused of defrauding taxpayers of roughly $1.3 billion. Importantly, the takedown focused on the over-prescription of opioids, a phenomenon that has led to thousands of addictions and overdoses across the U.S. Takedowns like this one serve an important purpose in highlighting law enforcement’s focus on fighting a particular type of crime, and they tend to encourage and heighten public awareness as well.
Depending on the types of crimes at play, takedowns can be remarkably challenging actions. When I worked at the DOJ Organized Crime & Gang Section, I was involved in several of these operations. Anytime an official in Washington, D.C. tries to coordinate across multiple federal and local law enforcement agencies in various states to establish a single “D-Day” for the takedown, he or she embarks on a painful process that makes cat herding look easy. A true takedown requires a tremendous amount of resources – agents to make arrests, officers executing search warrants, and prosecutors ready for initial appearances, to name a few. Getting 10, 20, or 100 cases to track the same timeline is a serious challenge. More so when the underlying crimes involve violence, guns, or any form of ongoing victimization. For example, imagine asking a local officer to hold off on arresting gang members who murdered a teenager because you want to “bundle” that case into a takedown narrative. Letting criminals continue their access to guns, drugs, human trafficking, or ongoing fraud schemes draining grandma’s savings account in the name of “coordination” of a takedown is rightly frowned upon.
Consequently, many takedowns are not very contemporaneous events by law enforcement but more of a generalized update that might span weeks or months of activity. In fact, a narcotics takedown several years ago included such uncoordinated, barely related targets that the national media succumbed to “takedown fatigue,” failing to cover several takedowns that ensued because of their cynicism regarding the six degrees of separation approach that had underscored the anti-cartel operation. Interestingly, Attorney General Sessions’ comments refer to “the 8th year of the Health Care Fraud Takedown.” If the staggering numbers provided to the press are actually an accumulation of eight years’ worth of work, then it may be time to come up with a more apt phrase than “takedown,” which sounds to the untrained ear to be a reference to overnight raids and arrests. None of this is to suggest that dedicating resources to fighting the opioid epidemic is a bad idea – it is not, and including corrupt doctors and facilities within the cross-hairs is appropriate and overdue. But know that behind the press conference curtain is a wild mix of activity, including coordination challenges, interagency spats, risk assessments, and closed-door governmental decisions on cases for inclusion, as well as the time-frame to be used in announcing the coordinated numbers that make up a takedown press release.