BALTIMORE, NOV. 23 -- The U.S. attorney sued five doctors, a psychotherapist and a nurse in Maryland today, alleging they owe the federal government more than $1 million in scholarships and penalties for failing to serve a stint in the U.S. Public Health Service in exchange for their financial aid.
The unusual action by the top federal law enforcement officer in Maryland is part of a broader debt-collection program aimed at recovering $12.5 million in federal delinquent funds ranging from small business loans to traffic tickets throughout the state.
In addition to the health professionals, U.S. Attorney Breckinridge L. Willcox said his office is pursuing more than $4.5 million in various criminal fines and assessments owed by Maryland residents.
For example, he said, his office has identified more than 100 motorists who owe an undetermined amount in fines and penalties for traffic violations on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and other federal property but who have "repeatedly ignored notices" to make payments.
Willcox said the seven health professionals sued today received scholarships some years ago as part of a "contractual agreement" to serve in the regular or reserve corps of the Public Health Service in areas where there is a shortage of medical personnel, such as Indian reservations.
In failing to do this, Willcox said, the seven breached their contracts and now owe the health service for the value of their scholarships, plus penalties and interest totaling more than $1 million.
Willcox said additional court actions are being considered "against others who take the government's money and run. Health care professionals above all others should evidence integrity rather than debt-avoidance, and they will pay the maximum penalty for their conduct."
The seven health professionals and the amounts they allegedly owe in scholarships, penalties and interest were listed as Karen M. Rhodes, 31, physician, of Columbia, $228,000; Elizabeth Estelle Pritchett, 32, physician, of Baltimore, $181,000; Donna Hester Butler, physician, of Baltimore, $96,000; Clide Sydney Sherrod Jr., physician, of Takoma Park, $163,000; Leslie D. Paul-Erez, 31, physician, of Silver Spring, $185,000; Ida Mae Reaves, 42, psychotherapist, of Baltimore, $98,000, and Delores Ann Couch-Haywoode, 47, registered nurse, of Seabrook, $121,000.
None of the seven could be reached for comment.
Willcox said the motorists will be notified to pay their debts within 15 days. "If these scofflaws continue to ignore" the notices, he said, his office will ask the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration to revoke their licenses.
Also, Willcox said, his office is attempting to collect still other debts by having debt amounts deducted from federal tax refund checks due some Maryland residents. To that end, he said, his office recently submitted to the Internal Revenue Service the names of 548 residents who have failed to pay various civil and criminal fines, penalties or loans.
"This office will continue to aggressively collect debts due the federal government," Willcox said. " . . . Regardless of the amount of any debt which is owed to the government, each payment, no matter how small, reduces the huge debt which owed our government."