Methadone Meltdown

Dr. Amos and Cecilia Ozumba ran Houston Maintenance Clinic for four years. Have they finally run it into the ground?

Amos and Cecilia Ozumba incorporated Houston Maintenance Clinic as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation operating at 4900 Fannin Street in July 1996, with Cecilia Ozumba as the corporation's registered agent and an initial board of three directors, including both husband and wife. By August 1998 a doctor originally on the clinic board had been replaced by HMC's current financial manager. The Press was unable to document the membership of the clinic's current board of directors.

From the start, Houston Maintenance Clinic comprised two distinct entities housed in the same quarters: the nonprofit methadone clinic funded with TCADA dollars, and a private, for-profit methadone clinic funded by paying client/patients. To qualify for the TCADA program -- which might require a small co-pay from patients, or might be free, depending on the level of need -- patients are required to meet financial eligibility standards. Patients who don't meet standards for enrollment have the option of enrolling in the private clinic and covering the cost of treatment themselves.

The arrangement is not an uncommon one, but it does require strict accounting and separation of income streams and expenses between the two entities. That accounting and separation, current and former employees agree, did not exist at HMC.

Gail Lee, a former administrative secretary at HMC, answers her phone, listens to a reporter's introduction and laughs. "Oh, I know what this is about."

Hired on the TCADA payroll, Lee says she spent a good portion of her three months at HMC answering phones for both the private clinic and the Partial Hospitalization Program, which accepts Medicare and Medicaid patients for various therapies, operated by the Ozumbas in the Fannin building's downstairs office.

Additionally, she says, the Ozumbas directed her to conduct personal business for the couple on state time. Lee provides copies, which she says she took with her when she left HMC, of letters she typed on the Ozumbas' personal stationery. One is addressed to the consulate general of Nigeria, requesting passport renewals. Another thanks state Representative Garnet Coleman for a "Declaration" delivered upon the occasion of son Donald Ozumba's college graduation. A letter to the Home Depot customer satisfaction department requests the replacement of kitchen cabinets installed in the Ozumba home.

Lee hands over another three-pager she says she typed up for the Ozumbas on state time. Titled "Anyibuofu Group Agreement," the document lays out conditions under which money is to be collected for what appears to be a lottery pool. Six names are listed on the apparent draft, including that of Amos Ozumba, the only HMC employee on the list.

Lee says she left HMC over a disagreement about how her work time was being spent.

"I would have to count the receipts for the week, and this is both TCADA and private clients. So I was in there in the middle of counting money, and the phone's ringing, and CeCe [Cecilia Ozumba] comes in, and she's like, 'You're not answering the phone.' And I told her, 'No, I'm counting money.' And she said something about TCADA, if they call up and nobody answers the phone, then I'm going to be in trouble. And I said, 'Really, well, would I be in trouble if they found out that while they pay me, I'm doing work for the clinic downstairs?' And she said, 'Oh, no, that's okay, they wouldn't mind about that at all.' "

Two days later, Lee says, she was fired.

Lee says she had called TCADA to complain, left a message on the state agency's voice mail and never got a call back.

Former HMC nurse Joyce Thomlinson, speaking of her three months at the clinic, is succinct and extravagant at the same time.

"That is the worst job I ever had in my life. I had to do weeks and weeks of prayer to get over that experience. I was on my knees day and night begging the Lord to forgive me for the thoughts I had about those evil people."

Thomlinson has been in nursing 25 years, and took the HMC job "because it's easy," she says. "You don't have to deal with doctors and IVs and sick people. You just sit behind a computer and dose."

It did not, however, turn out to be easy. She, a TCADA-payrolled employee like Gail Lee, also was asked to perform work at the PHP clinic downstairs. "Just things that you could do for him for free."

Thomlinson is one of a large majority of HMC employees who report a chronic problem with payroll checks bouncing, and salaries sometimes covered with personal checks from Amos Ozumba, some of which have bounced as well. "How can you get government funds and then give bad paychecks?"

Like others, she says she observed Ozumba harassing patients for money and intimidating both clients and staff.

Like others, she says she was asked to manipulate documents.

"I didn't start there until September 7, and they wanted me to go back in July and sign my name to work I didn't do. Hell, no! My license is on the line! I'm a registered nurse!"

Thomlinson worked the day in late 1999 that the DEA arrived unannounced.

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