By Jane Musgrave, Palm Beach Post
WEST PALM BEACH — The former owner of the once wildly popular Buddha Sky Bar in Delray Beach was sentenced on Wednesday to 6½ years in prison in connection with what federal prosecutors described as a $6.9 million health care fraud scheme.
Chris Licata, who sold his interest in the Atlantic Avenue restaurant in 2015 to open Boca Toxicology lab, admitted he paid kickbacks and bribes to obtain doctors’ orders for medically unnecessary tests and submitted the bills to Medicare, federal prosecutors said.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic began, Licata exploited elderly residents’ fears of the disease and bundled coronavirus tests with other expensive and medically unnecessary genetic tests for cancer, diabetes, dementia and other diseases, prosecutors said.
In addition to prison time, U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks ordered the 45-year-old Delray Beach man to reimburse Medicare $2.8 million and pay back another $1.5 million in ill-gotten gains.
Since his arrest last year, Licata launched a successful real estate development business, said defense attorney Sam Rabin. Licata has already handed the government checks for nearly $4.4 million to repay Medicare and cover the amount that prosecutors asked him to forfeit, the attorney said in court papers.
Describing Licata as a serial entrepreneur who has a long history of giving back to the community, Rabin told Middlebrooks that his client didn’t deserve a possible eight-year sentence.
Highlighting Licata’s good works, Rabin said that when the Boynton Beach native owned the restaurant, he gave some of the proceeds from food sales to nonprofits, donated food for fundraisers and organized staff outings to build homes for Habitat for Humanity, the attorney said.
When he owned and operated Capture Life magazine in the early 2000s, Licata regularly gave free ad space to philanthropic groups, he said.
“Mr. Licata is a genuinely decent man who has readily acknowledged his misconduct and is committed to rebuilding his name, reputation and standing in his community,” Rabin wrote.
In addition to not giving Licata the maximum sentence, Middlebrooks agreed to allow him to remain free until June 28, when he must report to prison.
Three others — Juan Nava Ruiz, Eric Frank and Michael Mondelli — have also been charged in connection with the scheme. The three are accused of soliciting Medicare patients and doctors and referring them to Licata’s lab.
Nava and Frank have each pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to solicit and receive health care kickbacks and are awaiting sentencing. Mondelli, who was arrested in February, has indicated he, too, plans to plead guilty in connection with his role in the scheme, according to court records.