It took a jury only about 90 minutes to find Ronald Petersen guilty of defrauding MaineCare by as much as $400,000 in taxpayer money by billing the state for counseling services he never provided.

Petersen, 57, of Bridgton, bowed his head slightly as the jury foreman read the word “guilty” Friday afternoon.

Petersen shook his head twice – as if saying “no” – and quickly left the courtroom after the verdict was read. When approached for a comment, Petersen said only, “It’s all a bunch of lies.”

He remains free until his sentencing in 60 days, but was ordered to surrender his passport.

Petersen was charged with the felony charge of theft by deception in his operation of Hope Recovery Center in Limerick. The center provided minimal substance abuse counseling services, but billed MaineCare as if it were a large counseling center, prosecutors said. MaineCare is the state’s name for Medicaid, a state-run program that uses federal and state money to provide medical services for low-income patients.

Leanne Robbin, the state assistant attorney general who prosecuted the case, said the state had no sentencing recommendation yet, but likely would not seek the maximum penalty of 10 years, since Petersen does not have a long criminal record.

Petersen was found guilty of reckless conduct in 2002, for which he was fined $1,000. He was also found guilty of committing a burglary in 1982 and was given a one-year suspended prison sentence and two years probation.

Robbin said the state presented “overwhelming” evidence showing how Petersen perpetrated his scam, and dozens of witnesses corroborated the accusation that Petersen was calling the shots at Hope Recovery Center. Petersen’s defense attorney had tried to downplay his client’s role at the center.

Petersen in 2012 had told a police officer investigating the case that “God told him” to start Hope Recovery Center, located on the grounds of Faith Christian Center, where Petersen was the associate pastor.

“There was a paper trail, and you can’t change the paper trail,” Robbin said.

Petersen billed MaineCare for about $575,000 from September 2010 to February 2012, and used some of the funds to pay himself a $189,000 salary and buy jewelry, a house, plane tickets and other items.

Trial testimony showed that Petersen, during the 2012 police interview, claimed that some of the money went for humanitarian purposes, such as paying mortgages for people in financial difficulties or for missionaries going on trips to Africa. Robbin said there was no evidence that the money was spent to help others, and the prosecution estimated that Petersen defrauded MaineCare by about $300,000 to $400,000 in false billings.

Petersen orchestrated the elaborate scheme by obtaining MaineCare billing numbers from licensed substance abuse counselors whom he knew, Robbin said. He then pretended to provide counseling services to MaineCare patients when few or no such services actually occurred, Robbin said.

John Webb, Petersen’s attorney, said others involved in the enterprise were the ones responsible for the scheme, including a recovering addict who died in 2012.

“He did not intentionally defraud MaineCare. He did nothing of the sort,” Webb said during closing arguments Friday morning.

But Robbin said Petersen was involved in the day-to-day operations of Hope Recovery and knew that there were large sums of money in the substance abuse center’s bank account.

“Ask yourself, does Ronald Petersen’s version of events pass the straight-face test?” Robbin said during closing arguments. “According to Petersen, it’s everyone else’s fault except his.”

In some cases, Petersen paid clients who were recovering addicts a nominal sum to obtain the MaineCare patient numbers of other people, and used those numbers to bill MaineCare, even though he did not provide them any services, Robbin said.

Robbin said members of Faith Christian Center were not involved Hope Recovery Center’s operations.

Richard Racicot, Faith Christian’s pastor, said that Petersen showed up at the non-denominational church a little over five years ago, homeless. He lived at the church for six months, Racicot said.

Petersen was helpful around the church. He became an associate pastor focusing on one-on-one counseling and spoke of his desire to open a recovery center, Racicot said.

To help get the recovery center off the ground, Racicot moved his family into a rental and out of their large house next to the church so Petersen could use it for the center. Petersen was to pay rent once the program was financially stable.

After 16 months, the program was making enough money that Petersen was able to pay six months of rent. Racicot said he forgave the rest.

But when further problems surfaced with Hope Recovery – it closed in 2012 after Department of Health and Human Services auditors noticed irregularities in billing – Racicot evicted Petersen and reclaimed the house, he said.

“Some people feel I didn’t stand by him long enough. Others thought I stood by him too long,” he said. “I think originally he started out with good intention and good goals and everything, and I think something happened and large amounts of money started coming in.”

Racicot said the Attorney General’s office began investigating him as well, wanting to know how much money Petersen gave the church to help fund its food pantry and other church works.

“He certainly should repent for what he’s done,” Racicot said. “If you do the crime, you should do the time. There are consequences for our actions here on earth.”

 

David Hench contributed to this report.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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