Woman pleads guilty to fraud for $359 million COVID test scheme

(NewsNation) — A California woman could spend up to 20 years in prison after fraudulently submitting hundreds of millions of dollars in claims for unnecessary tests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thursday, Lourdes Navarro, 64, pleaded guilty to health care and wire fraud after she and her husband, Imran Shams, billed the government and private health companies $359 million for “medically unnecessary” respiratory pathogen panel (RPP) tests, according to the Department of Justice.

“Those who stole from government health programs during the COVID-19 pandemic not only violated federal law, they betrayed the public trust,” said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in a news release.

From June 2020 to April 2022, Navarro worked with Shams to obtain nasal swabs from people at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and students and staff at schools, court documents allege. Those samples were meant to be tested for COVID but the duo “routinely caused various RPP tests to be performed,” documents say.

Navarro and Shams owned and operated Matias Clinical Laboratory, which received millions in Medicare payments as a result of the false and fraudulent claims.

“The defendant used her management position at a clinical testing laboratory to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic for personal gain,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole Argentieri in a news release.

The husband and wife used the money to fund real estate purchases, luxury items, travel and household expenses, court records say.

So far, the DOJ has seized over $1.4 billion in COVID-19 relief funds that thousands of criminals had stolen. Those funds had been used in everything from gang murder-for-hire plots to prison extortion schemes.

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