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18 former NBA players arrested in fraud scheme seem to face a slam-dunk prosecution

As conspiracies go, this bumbling team of alleged criminals belongs on the JV squad’s bench.

Federal prosecutors have charged 18 former NBA players with conspiracy to defraud the league’s Health and Welfare Benefit Plan out of nearly $4 million. Defendant Terrence Williams, the 11th overall pick in the 2009 draft by the then-New Jersey Nets and one-time shooting guard for the Houston Rockets, is also charged with aggravated identity theft.

It probably took FBI computer experts less than the 24-second shot clock to connect these emails to particular defendants.

The defendants allegedly conspired to commit health care fraud and wire fraud by submitting claims for reimbursement for medical and dental expenses that were never actually rendered. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York says the defendants, who also include guard Sebastian Telfair, small forward Tony Allen and power forward Ronald Glen “Big Baby” Davis, submitted claims for $3.9 million, from which they allegedly received approximately $2.5 million in fraudulent payments.

If the facts alleged in the indictment are true, this “team” of co-conspirators was certainly not the 1996 Chicago Bulls (72-10) of criminals. These defendants look a lot more like the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats (7-59) or perhaps the Washington Generals. As conspiracies go, these teammates belong on the JV squad’s bench.

Williams allegedly orchestrated the scheme and then recruited other players by supplying them with fake invoices to support their fraudulent claims in exchange for kickbacks to him once they received payment. Federal prosecutors say at least 10 co-conspirators paid kickbacks to Williams totaling approximately $230,000.

However, when Christopher Douglas-Roberts, also known to basketball fans as “Supreme Bey,” didn’t pay his kickback, Williams took to impersonating the health plan administrators to intimidate him. Williams is accused of creating a phony email from an administrator and falsely raising a potential issue with Douglas-Roberts’ reimbursement in an effort to frighten him into paying his kickback. In other words, Williams is accused of creating a false email to falsely raise false problems with Douglas-Roberts’ already false claims.

Advances in digital communication have streamlined our lives. Instead of licking stamps and mailing envelopes at the post office, we now email them as PDFs. Instead of meeting in person or calling someone, we text message or email them. Everyone’s job has been made easier by digital communication — including that of FBI agents and federal prosecutors. Had the former NBA players made any effort to communicate offline, the government would have had a harder time tracking down any evidence; instead, prosecutors allegedly possess emailed evidence of false forms and claims.

That violates one of the fundamental rules of conspiracies: Don’t put it in writing. Meet face-to-face in an alley. Use smoke signals. Learn semaphore. But email? That’s not only putting damning evidence in writing, but it’s also preserving that evidence on servers out of your control. Lo-and-behold, some of the most damning evidence the indictment offers is the defendants’ emailing of these allegedly fraudulent invoices to one another, with what appears to be instructions in how to use the forms to defraud. It probably took FBI computer experts less than the 24-second shot clock to connect these emails to particular defendants.

It only made it easier for investigators that some defendants seemed to be particularly careless in covering their tracks. Invoices indicate that one defendant received IV sedation, endodontic therapy (i.e. root canals) and crowns on eight teeth at a Beverly Hills dental office for $47,900. There’s just one problem: U.S. customs records indicate that the same defendant was in Taipei, Taiwan, on that same date, half a world away from Beverly Hills and its world-class dentistry.

The indictment suggests Williams also broke another bedrock rule of conspiracies: If you and your teammates are defrauding others, don’t start defrauding your teammates. That’s not good teamwork.

The indictment also hints that the government successfully put a full-court press on everyone else involved with the scheme who wasn’t ultimately indicted. There are plenty of references to folks like the unnamed “CC-1 and CC-2,” who allegedly assisted Williams in creating fabricated chiropractic invoices.

Probably the reason CC-1, CC-2 and others were not named as defendants is that the government got to them, and they were willing to turn on their co-conspirators. No surprise there. The government would of course be willing to go easy on nobodies in order to score convictions against NBA marquee names.

The indictment suggests that this scheme was so bumbling that the health care plan’s board of trustees was on to the criminal game plan before law enforcement even got involved. The board likely handed most of its investigation over to the government. That, combined with the trail of digital evidence these defendants allegedly left in their wake make the government proving its case seem like … wait for it … a slam dunk.