BY JOSEPH MAYALL
Kamaru Usman inside the UFC Octagon
No stranger to variety, the podcast of UFC commentator Joe Rogan, The Joe Rogan Experience, has been the launchpad for countless remarkable stories that span a gamut of topics from bowhunting, to artificial intelligence, to zany conspiracy theories, and everything in between.
One of the podcast’s more fascinating discussions was provided by UFC welterweight champion Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman: during his appearance on the show, Usman made it known that his father, Muhammed Usman, was serving a 15-year sentence in a federal penitentiary for crimes Kamaru believes his father didn’t commit.
Kamaru Usman’s anecdote left the MMA fan base intrigued and perplexed; how was the fact that the father of the UFC welterweight champion was serving such a lengthy sentence just coming to light? What was the chain of events that led to Mr. Usman’s incarceration? What did he do that got him a 15-year sentence? And, perhaps the most contentious question of all, does Muhammed Usman deserve to be in prison?
Some of these questions can be objectively answered; the last cannot. With an understanding of the chain of events that led to the incarceration, an explanation of the particularly nuanced legal statutes that affected the sentencing, and a consideration of the larger societal questions at play, we leave you to make your own judgment about the ethicality of Muhammed Usman’s imprisonment.
An Attempt at the American Dream
Muhammed Usman immigrated to the United States from his home country of Nigeria in 1989. After gaining citizenship in 1996, Usman followed in the footsteps of the entrepreneurial immigrants that came before him, embarking down the well-walked path towards The American Dream. Usman founded a pair of ambulance companies — Royal Ambulance (established in 2003) and First Choice EMS (established in 2005) — that were so successful he was awarded the Republican National Committee’s “Who’s Who Businessman of the Year.”
Although he had worked as a pharmacist in Nigeria, Usman had no prior experience in the American ambulatory or healthcare industries; Usman’s defenders point to the lack of experience as evidence of an entrepreneurial spirit, while his critics (and prosecutors) simultaneously argue it shows he was looking for any way to run a scam.
Lacking the expertise to operate the businesses and the 60+ EMTs they employed, Usman placed “an unusually high degree of trust and authority” in a trio of employees: Josie Horn, David McNac (Horn’s brother), and Shaun Outen, all served as high-level managers for Royal Ambulance and First Choice EMS for periods of time during 2004 to 2007.
By all accounts, Usman was “laissez-faire” with the trio, allowing them the discretion to run the ambulatory services while he pursued other time-consuming interests, such as a car export business, a healthcare facility for handicapped children, and frequent, lengthy visits back to Nigeria.
The Run Sheets
At the core of the case against Mr. Usman, sits the issue of the fraudulent run sheets. As Usman’s ambulance companies didn’t operate as traditional emergency transports but rather transferred non-emergency dialysis patients to and from their weekly infusions, they were required to log “run sheets” for every trip.
A “run sheet” is a document filled out by an EMT that records the specifics of an ambulance ride for the purpose of billing later on: who was the patient, where they were picked up and dropped off, time of the trip, etc. The run sheets are then submitted to a contracted medical billing company, whose experts review the details of the trip and send a bill to Medicare (government-funded health insurance for those over 65) and Medicaid (government-funded health insurance for low-income individuals) on behalf of Royal Ambulance and First Choice EMS.
It was these medical billing companies that first expressed concern that the run sheets were ripe with false information: many run sheets evidenced “multiple loading,” a fraudulent practice where two patients ride in the same ambulance, but two run sheets are fabricated to show that there were two separate trips.
Others showed evidence of improper documentation, such as stating patients needed to be loaded into the ambulance when they actually climbed in autonomously, and claiming the patients needed a stretcher when they actually just sat in a chair.
Medicare will only pay for a non-emergency ambulance ride for a patient if other types of transport would place the patient at risk, so by lying about the patient’s medical condition on the run sheet, bad actors at First Choice EMS and Royal Ambulance were attempting to defraud the government.
Once Usman learned that the medical billing companies had raised concern about the blatant attempts of fraud on the run sheets, Usman and Outen had a row that led to Outen leaving the companies.
According to David McNac’s testimony, after Outen left the “multiple-loading” ceased. Whether Outen’s departure was a result of Usman being an honest businessman who found out his partner was engaging in criminal activity, or a co-conspirator angry at his accomplice for getting caught is highly contentious and open for interpretation.
The prosecution asserted that with Usman’s direction and approval, Outen and McNac instructed and showed their EMTs how to produce the fraudulent run sheets, and according to the 12 members of the jury who voted to convict, there was sufficient evidence to prove this point.
In total, Medicare and Medicaid were fraudulently billed for over $3.5 million, resulting in First Choice EMS and Royal Ambulance receiving over $1.3 million in unwarranted payments from the government programs.
While the duplicitous run sheets were being used to defraud the government, Royal Ambulance and First Choice EMS were undertaking mass-marketing efforts to expand their client base and accrue more patients who would comply with the companies’ “unorthodox” practices. While it is obviously not illegal for a company to market to potential customers, the prosecution highlighted the marketing efforts as evidence of Usman’s participation in the conspiracy, which had severely increased the length of Usman’s sentence.
These marketing efforts included standard, ethical practices — such as disseminating pens and flyers with the companies’ labels — and practices that were certainly not: catered lunches and gifts in the form of “perfumes, colognes, and gift cards” were commonplace, and certainly lend credence to the idea that the shot-callers of Royal Ambulance and First Choice EMS were looking for patients and dialysis center employees to “play along” with their illegal billing activities. Murray Thomas, a patient that was enlisted by the ambulatory companies to market to other patients, testified that in 2004 and 2005, “90% of the patients acquired by Royal Ambulance had been acquired by these ‘mass-marketing efforts.’ ”
The prosecution’s emphasis on his involvement in the mass-marketing practices impacted Muhammed Usman in more ways than one: not only did it assist in convincing the jury that Usman was a willing participant of the dishonest and illegal practices of his companies, but due to the convoluted system of sentencing guidelines, it severely lengthened his sentence.
One aspect of Kamaru Usman’s recounting of his father’s case that caused great consternation among The Joe Rogan Experience’s audience was the length of Muhammed Usman’s incarceration: one expects a 15-year sentence for particularly heinous crimes such as sex-crimes and violent assaults, so to learn such a stern penalty was handed down for a crime involving ambulance companies alarmed many listeners.
While David McNac and Outen plead guilty (both received less than five years in prison), Usman elected to go to trial. By declining the plea agreement, Usman was facing charges for healthcare fraud, conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, aiding and abetting, and money laundering. Once he was found guilty on all counts, Usman’s sentence was determined by the application of sentencing guidelines, a framework that dictates the length of a convict’s sentence based on the “levels” that their crime warrants.
While guidelines are advisory in nature (judges aren’t required to pass sentences that fall within them), they are implemented frequently; as we saw in Usman’s case, their use can lead to bizarrely-long periods of incarceration.
One particular event in the sentencing process had dire consequences for Mr. Usman: the court elected to base Mr. Usman’s penalty on the amount Medicare and Medicaid had been billed for ($3,644,464.90), as opposed to the amount that the companies actually received from the government (less than $1.3 million): this seemingly trivial decision (which Usman unsuccessfully appealed) greatly increased the length of the sentence, as the court added 18 levels on top of Usman’s base level of nine due to the higher “loss amount.”
On top of the 18-level increase, the court tacked on two levels for the “mass-marketing” scheme, four levels for Usman’s “role as a leader and organizer” in the conspiracy, two levels for obstruction of justice, and then a mere two-level reprieve, resulting in a sentencing level of 33.
Under the sentencing guidelines, a level of 33 corresponded to a sentence of 168 to 210 months; Mr. Usman was sentenced to 180 months incarceration in a federal penitentiary, and forced to pay restitution on $1,317,179.30 — the amount the ambulatory companies received from Medicare and Medicaid, not the $3,644,464.90 that had been used as the basis for his sentencing.
Sports and politics are notoriously contentious, so a story such as Muhammed Usman’s where the two collide has generated bellicose debate: some see Muhammed Usman as a criminal conspirator, rightfully punished with an appropriate implementation of justice; others see a victim of a dysfunctional justice system that wrongfully imprisoned the American Dream incarnate after he was scapegoated by his native-born partners for a crime he had no hand in committing.
Regardless of which perspective one takes, Mr. Usman’s saga is undeniably being contemplated through the cultural lens of the time in which his son exposed it: while sentenced back in 2012, Mr. Usman’s story encapsulates a spectrum of societal quandaries that America struggles to answer today: encompassed by the issues of race, immigration, questions of over-prosecution in the justice system, government-funded health insurance (and therefore its potential for abuse), the case of Muhammed Usman serves as a Rorschach Test for one’s political beliefs; a fitting test given who Muhammed Usman’s son will be fighting next.
In a development fit for the final act of a Hollywood blockbuster, it was recently announced Kamaru Usman will be defending his welterweight UFC belt against Colby Covington at UFC 245. Covington — a relentlessly vocal champion of President Donald Trump — has modified the President’s strategy of using bigotted rhetoric to galvanize his political supporters fit his own objective: by infusing the “heel” persona of a 1980’s professional wrestler with the modern political rhetoric detested by many, Covington has positioned himself as the “UFC’s ultimate villain,” energizing supporters and detractors alike and drawing attention to his bouts.
Regardless of Covington’s motives for his antics, his behavior is indisputably atrocious: racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogynism aren’t bugs for Covington, they’re features. Most notoriously, after telling a Brazilian crowd: “Brazil you’re a dump. All you filthy animals suck,” Covington took to Instagram to explain he’s not a racist, but a “realist:” a common trope racists use to justify racism.
While Colby Covington has successfully increased his relevancy by manifesting the MAGA-movement into a cage fighter, Kamaru Usman seeks to be its, and Covington’s, antithesis. Vowing to “put the wrath of every immigrant” (including his father), on Colby Covington, UFC 245 will be an appropriate culmination to the story of Muhammed Usman and his family; the “final-battle” of a narrative almost too perfect for the silver screen.
Fueled by what he believes is an unjust imprisonment of his father, Kamaru Usman will undoubtedly be dedicating his existence to the objective of vanquishing the opponent he sees as the incarnate of the societal problems that led to his father’s incarceration. We will see if it will be enough when Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington make the walk at UFC 245. Unable to order pay-per-view from a cell, Muhammed Usman will have to wait a bit longer than the rest of us to learn the conclusion to this remarkable saga.
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