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Two Hellertown pharmacists charged in multimillion-dollar fraud scheme - UPDATE

Express-Times staffBy Express-Times staff 
on November 30, 2012 at 12:05 PM, updated November 30, 2012 at 8:11 PM
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lena lasherLena Lasher
Two Hellertown pharmacists are among 10 people charged in an international, multimillion-dollar online prescription drug fraud scheme, federal authorities said.

Lena Lasher, 45, of High Bridge, is CEO ofHellertown Pharmacy in the first block of Main Street in the borough. Also charged isPeter Riccio, 59, of Warren Township, N.J., who owns the business through his Repete Inc. Corp., according to Pennsylvania corporation records. Repete shares an address with the pharmacy.

Lasher and Riccio received more than $13 million through their alleged roles in the scheme, a statement Thursday from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern New York District said.

Both were released on $500,000 personal recognizance bonds, U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Jerika Richardson said this morning. Lasher's $500,000 bond is unsecured, Richardson said.

They have one week from a hearing held Thursday to satisfy their bail conditions.

A call for comment to Lasher's home went unanswered.

Pretrial prohibitions

Both are under strict pretrial supervision prohibiting transfers of money abroad, new bank accounts and new lines of credit, without court approval, Richardson said. Both are also prohibited from accessing a website that offers the sale or dispensing of prescription drugs, she said.

It was business as usual this morning at Hellertown Pharmacy in a strip mall at the edge of Hellertown. Two employees, a man and a woman, declined to comment on Riccio's and Lasher's connection with the business, but they said the store would run on normal hours today.

"We're not allowed to comment," the female employee said when asked about Lasher and Riccio.

hellertown pharmacyThe Hellertown Pharmacy is in a shopping center in the first block of Main Street in Hellertown.
People from five other states and Bulgaria -- including three physicians and five website operators -- are also charged in the federal investigation.

The scheme ran from 2010 until this month, the U.S. Attorney's Office said, and involved the distribution of prescription pain medications. To obtain the prescriptions, visitors to a website would fill in a questionnaire, with many of the yes-or-no answers already answered, the office said.

The site's operators would forward the completed questionnaires to doctors who would issue prescriptions and send them to pharmacies, including three owned by Riccio, the district attorney alleges. Two of Riccio's pharmacies are in Pennsylvania and one is in New Jersey, the attorney said, but neither are identified by name.

Riccio is also listed as the principal in Towne Pharmacy in Dunellen, N.J. The U.S. attorney listed Lasher as "pharmacist in charge" at the Pennsylvania pharmacies.

Riccio and Lasher -- she is also known as Lena Contang, the attorney's office said -- would allegedly fill out the illicit prescriptions themselves or have others do it and mail the medication to customers.

Nine in custody

Nine of the 10 charged were arrested Thursday morning and were due in court later in the day. One of the website operators, Gergana Chervenkova, of Bulgaria, was still at large, the office said.

Online profiles show Lasher as a 2007 graduate of Shenandoah University with a doctorate of pharmacy and in 2005 she was approved to practice pharmacy in Louisiana.

The first pretrial conference for Riccio and Lasher is scheduled 11 a.m. Dec. 10, Richardson said.

WFMZ-TV 69 reported federal agents on Thursday morning raided the Hellertown Pharmacy, apparently seizing computer hard drives.

All 10 are accused of narcotics conspiracy and related charges, with penalties ranging from maximum sentences of three to 10 years in prison upon conviction. Several, including Riccio and Lasher, face additional charges of mail and wire fraud and two counts of money laundering, each carrying a maximum 20-year sentence upon conviction.

“As alleged, this multimillion-dollar Internet pharmacy pill scheme involved pharmacists and doctors who placed cash over care by partnering with corrupt website operators to peddle massive quantities of addictive pain pills without valid prescriptions," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. "We will not tolerate the violation of laws and regulations governing the pharmaceutical industry."

***
SIMILAR ALLEGATIONS

Hellertown Pharmacy and Towne Pharmacy faced disciplinary action in North Dakota for allegedly illegally selling the painkiller Tramadol to residents there via the Internet,according to a March article in western North Dakota's Bakken Today

Neither was licensed nor permitted in North Dakota, the report said. The details of the Internet questionnaire involved are similar to those outlined in the U.S. attorney's news release.

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