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Ex-auditor admits lying about insurer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A former BrickStreet Insurance auditor initially told coal contractors that higher-ups at the company were involved in a bribery and workers' compensation fraud scheme, but has since recanted those statements in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, records and court testimony show.

Arville Sargent repeatedly told officials from Aracoma Contracting and other companies that "others in Charleston" -- including BrickStreet's upper management -- were part of his scheme to take bribes from the contractors in exchange for helping them defraud BrickStreet out of millions in workers' compensation premiums.

But in a March deal with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, Sargent said that those earlier statements were false, and made only to try to convince contract company officials to continue paying him bribes.

No one else from BrickStreet has been charged in the ongoing investigation, and officials from the company said they're confident Sargent acted alone.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. sentenced Sargent to 6 years in prison after he reached a deal with prosecutors and admitted to tax evasion and mail fraud, in a scheme in which he accepted an estimated $1 million in bribes in exchange for helping Aracoma Contracting officials avoid higher workers' compensation premiums from BrickStreet. Four officials from Aracoma Contracting and related firms have also been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 months to 30 months.

The investigation, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Ryan, has led prosecutors to additional information about public corruption in the region, to a potentially large gambling ring, and to more cases where coal companies were defrauding their workers' compensation insurers.

In Sargent's case, prosecutors alleged -- and Sargent admitted -- that Sargent worked with various officials from Aracoma Contracting and three related companies to defraud BrickStreet, West Virginia's largest workers' compensation provider.

The four companies were "employee leasing" services that supplied miners for coal companies, including Massey Energy, Alpha Natural Resources, and Patriot Coal, under agreements common to West Virginia's coal industry.

Officials from the four contracting firms paid their employees in cash, using withdrawals from the Bank of Mingo, allowing them to avoid employment taxes and to hide their true payroll, a move that greatly reduced their workers' compensation premiums, according to court records.

During a sentencing hearing in federal court on Friday, the issue of what Sargent had said about other BrickStreet officials came up when Aracoma Contracting official Jerome Edward Russell took the stand to testify about his dealings with Sargent.

Russell described how, after BrickStreet declined to renew Aracoma Contracting's insurance policy in 2010, Sargent still demanded more money from the contract firm's officials, saying they still owed him $500,000 for helping reduce their previous premiums.

Russell testified that Sargent told Aracoma officials that he needed the money to "pay the people in Charleston he was working for."

During a subsequent break in the sentencing hearing, BrickStreet general counsel T.J. Obrokta Jr. stopped a reporter in the corridor outside the courtroom to point out plea-agreement language that contradicted the version of events Sargent had given to Russell, and Russell had testified about.

Obrokta pointed to a "stipulation of facts" attached to the plea agreement, in which prosecutors and Sargent agreed that, "Mr. Sargent repeatedly made comments alluding that 'others in Charleston' were involved in the scheme to defraud BrickStreet, including members of the company's upper-management.

"Mr. Sargent claimed that the bribe payments needed to be paid because he had to share a portion of the proceeds with the 'others in Charleston' to ensure the scheme went undetected," the stipulation of facts states.

The stipulation continued, "Mr. Sargent admits that those representations were false and made only to convince Russell and the others to continue making bribe payments.

"To the best of his knowledge, no current or former BrickStreet employee was involved in, or otherwise knew of, the fraudulent scheme," the stipulation states.

In an interview, Obrokta said that BrickStreet had fully investigated the matter and was convinced no other employees were involved or knew about what Sargent had been doing.

"We found no evidence to suggest that anyone else was involved," Obrokta said.

Obrokta said that BrickStreet has begun a policy of rotating auditors among different employers and having additional employees ride along with auditors to try to prevent any similar schemes from occurring in the future.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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