Deaf Md. entrepreneur John Yeh charged in fraud probe
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
John T.C. Yeh was a hero and an inspiration. He was named 2008 Deaf Person of the Year by Deaf Life magazine. And Gallaudet University, his alma mater, once honored him as Entrepreneur of the Year.
Now federal prosecutors call Yeh something else: thief.
Yeh founded Rockville-based Viable Communications, a company that enables deaf people to make telephone calls to relatives, friends, repair companies or even pizza delivery joints. Yeh used that business, prosecutors say, to participate in a years-long scheme that stole millions of federal dollars intended to help the deaf.
To many in the deaf community, it is a betrayal.
"I personally felt a bit of pain when I learned about Yeh's involvement in this," said Jamie Berke, a longtime acquaintance of Yeh's and a contributing expert on deafness to About.com, an online reference site. "For years, the deaf community has looked to him as an example of a successful deaf entrepreneur. We need our role models in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, so it hurts when something like this happens to one of our role models."
Yeh, 62, of Potomac, is one of 26 people, including his brother Joseph, who are charged in federal court in New Jersey with gaming the Americans With Disabilities Act. Among other things, the law mandates that deaf people be given the tools they need to make phone calls. Companies that provide that service -- known as the Telecommunications Relay Service -- are reimbursed by the government.
It works in various ways. In traditional text-to-voice mode, for instance, the relay center acts as a go-between for a deaf person using a special text telephone and a hearing person using a standard voice phone. Or a deaf person can contact a company such as Viable by video phone. A sign language interpreter places the call and translates a conversation between the deaf caller and a hearing person on the other end.
Federal authorities say an extensive FBI investigation that spanned 10 states showed that Viable and six other businesses nationwide, five of which are independently owned call centers that did contract work for Viable, bilked the government by ginning up bogus calls. Officials did not say precisely how much they think was stolen, but they said it is in the "tens of millions."
Viable took legitimate calls. But Yeh also paid friends to use his company to link to recordings of radio programs, even podcasts of someone reading a novel, prosecutors allege. Some calls were quick; others dragged on. Often, no one interpreted, authorities say.
"That people would prey upon the program for their own greed is absolutely inexcusable," said Lanny A. Breuer, chief of the Justice Department's criminal division.
Yeh, who has pleaded not guilty, declined through his daughter to be interviewed for this article and did not respond to a message left at his home.
Paul Kemp, an attorney for Yeh, said the defense is still gathering information related to the case. "John has served the deaf community for many years in a huge and innovative way," Kemp said. "We hope to be able to explain any billing problems, and if there are irregularities, John will take responsibility for whatever the evidence shows."