MLT resident pleads guilty to theft charges in State Labor and Industries billing case

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The owner of a foreign-language interpreter service pleaded guilty to theft Monday in a billing-for-services scheme that authorities say cost a Washington state agency hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Philip Ward, 41, of Mountlake Terrace, pleaded guilty in Thurston County Superior Court to three counts of first-degree theft. Ward’s wife, Kitzia Huerta, 37, had pleaded guilty in October to one count of first-degree theft in the same case.

Ward and Huerta owned and operated Hispanic Voices, a business that once contracted with the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) to provide Spanish-language interpretation for injured workers at medical and vocational appointments related to workers’ compensation claims. Based out of a house in the 23900 block of 56th Avenue West in Mountlake Terrace, the business employed dozens of interpreters providing services throughout Snohomish, King, Pierce and Whatcom counties.
By pleading guilty, the couple admitted to defrauding L&I from February 2006 to September 2008 by billing for interpretive services that never occurred, inflating bills for services that did occur and using the provider numbers of certified interpreters to bill for services provided by uncertified interpreters.

Prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office contend the fraudulent billings amounted to well over $600,000, making it L&I’s largest case ever of interpreter fraud. As part of their guilty pleas, the couple has agreed to repay the state. The court will determine the amount of restitution at a hearing in Thurston County on Dec. 9.

Charges against the couple resulted from a complex L&I investigation that took years to build. In addition to conducting interviews, investigators combed through hundreds of thousands of documents to cross-reference client appointments with dates of service from interpreters, medical providers and legal providers.

The investigation revealed that the main way the couple defrauded L&I was by requiring interpreters to leave part of their billing forms blank. The couple then added from 30 minutes to several hours to most appointments. Investigators found more than 10,800 such instances of overbilling.

Each of the counts against Ward included “aggravating” circumstances that could result in more prison time than under standard sentencing guidelines. In addition to paying restitution, Ward could face up to 120 months in prison while Huerta could face up to 90 days in jail.

Huerta’s sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 17, and Ward’s sentencing is scheduled for April 21. Hispanic Voices no longer operates.

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