It was among the darkest periods in recent Apopka history.
It began in 2018 when Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson was accused on social media of desiring to replace then Apopka Fire Chief Chuck Carnesale. By 2019, there were denials by Nelson, a separation agreement for Carnesale drafted by City Attorney Joseph Byrd, and emailed to City Administrator Edward Bass, accusations of wrongdoing by Carnesale from a whistleblower inside the Apopka Fire Department, and an investigation by Byrd. There were lawsuits, allegations of gross negligience by a contractor working on EMS billings, and possible criminal charges against city employees.
Carnesale retired in August of 2019. Byrd's investigation concluded in September of 2019 with findings of inconclusive or unfounded evidence on all charges against Carnesale.
"Whereas Chief Carnesale is not available to refute, explain, and/or be confronted with the evidence, this issue is determined to be inconclusive," Byrd said in the statement.
On the most serious allegation, misappropriation of funds, Byrd found the claim to be "unfounded".
"No evidence in this investigation was found which indicates that Chief Carnesale personally benefited from any decision related to AFD funds," Byrd wrote in the narrative. "Accordingly, any allegation of misappropriation as defined by Florida Statutes is determined as unfounded."
On September 18th, 2019, Sean Wylam was ratified by the City Council as the next Fire Chief, which seemed to put an end to the drama of the previous period.
But now, over two years later, and only 43 days from the mayoral election, it looks as though Apopka may be taken back into that dark period.
On June 5th, 2019, the City filed a lawsuit against the NEB Group, NEB owner David Sulik, and 3 Rivers - the EMS billing providers for the City of Apopka from 2007-2019. And at its January 19th, 2022 meeting, Apopka City Attorney Michael Rodriguez presented the City Council with a mediated settlement.
According to the agenda packet for the meeting, the parties conditionally agreed to settle the litigation, which would result in the NEB Group and 3 Rivers Billing directing the transfer of the City’s EMS Billing data stored pursuant to 3 Rivers’ current software license with third-party operator of the EMS Billing Software, to an independent license to be purchased by the City from the same third-party operator. Further, NEB shall indemnify the City for all damages, costs, claims, fees, penalties, and harm sustained or relating Medicare or Medicaid billing during the effective date of the Agreement between NEB and City (2007 to 2019) which would be attributable to any negligence of or miscoding by NEB. Lastly, within 60 days of the effective date of the Settlement/Agreement, 3 Rivers and the City shall enter into a Business Associate Agreement to ensure that 3 Rivers will appropriately safeguard protected health information (PHI) that was created, received, maintained, or transmitted on behalf of the City, by NEB, in compliance with the applicable provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), for such PHI from 2007 to 2019, to the extent that 3 Rivers continues to maintain access thereto. The settlement would result in the dismissal of the pending action in Circuit Court.
Rodriguez believed that the settlement would protect the City, and return its EMS billing records from 2007-2019 back in to the City's control.
"The biggest concern I had was that those are public records that were in the possession of a third party," said Rodriguez. "And I had two specific issues. One, the contract between NEB and the city had expired... the city deemed as part of the complaint that was drafted by my predecessor, that contract was breached and therefore terminated during the pendency of the litigation, and the discovery that NEB as our EMS billing agent DID NOT hold the city's records."
Rodriguez also said that this would give the City the opportunity to audit those files.
"At this point, the City will be able to control its records, [and] be able to conduct a forensic audit of the EMS billing data from 2007 to 2019. This ability to actually now conduct a forensic audit of the actual data, something we had not been able to do. We received certain physical files, but they were all incomplete as pertaining to the litigation. This will finally enable us to obtain all of the data to conduct a thorough audit of the data to find any irregularities that were of concern to the fire department as part of the previous EMS billing provider."
But Nelson expects to find far more wrongdoing once that audit is completed.
"Well, I want to bring up a couple of things that in this agreement, he [Rodriguez] kind of glossed over, but I think it's really important," Nelson said. "I am 100% sure that what NEB did was... there's illegal things that have gone on, be it NEB, be it city employees, former city employees... there is money that should have come to the City of Apopka that is not in our coffers. We went from $700,000 with NEB to $1.4 million today."
It's an extremely provocative comment by Nelson, who is often reserved at City Council meetings, but it did not end with that statement.
"I'm just telling you that the money has been stolen by somebody... or it's been...or terrible records have been... [or] gifts... or terrible records have been taken. But we have lost out on $700,000 for at least 10 years, we've lost enough money on this NEB to pay for station five and six and equipment to go in it. So it gives us the ability to go back and file criminal charges against people within this organization that were... that have maybe taken money on the side from NEB. And I just want everybody to understand that that we know that we didn't get the money that we're supposed to get either by ineptness, or corruption. And we're gonna get to the bottom of it if it's all possible."
Two days later, Nelson was still adamant about his allegations at the City Council meeting. On social media, he posted the following statement on The Apopka Critic Facebook page:
"Here we go. NEB 2013/14 $708,000, 2014/15 $686,000, 2015/16 $702,000, 2016/17 $709,000, 2017/18 $745,000, *NEB/Change Health partial year $955,000, 1st full year Change Healthcare 2019/20 $1,345,000 2020/21 *$1,400,000 No Corruption????"
Amanda Marsh, the office manager for the NEB Group, according to her linked-in page, pushed back on Nelson's assertions on the same social media thread:
"Considering that NEB was NOT allowed to send unpaid accounts to collections, could those account for the "missing money"?! Did they expect to collect from the "homeless" patients?!!"
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