How a wedding photographer and a failed donut shop owner got $124M in federal cash for COVID testing

Written by on January 16, 2022

CHICAGO — First it was a Toyota pickup.

Then, a sky blue Lamborghini.

Then, on the finish of August final 12 months, Illinois resident Akbar Ali Syed posted a TikTok video of a crimson Lamborghini Countach being unloaded from a flatbed truck.

“Countach added to my assortment,” Syed wrote within the caption, including the tag “#entrepreneur.”

“Oil cash?” a consumer requested.

No, Syed responded: “COVID cash.”

Many questions are swirling round extra than simply the automobiles and Syed’s new $1.36 million mansion. The inquiries are targeted on a nationwide chain of coronavirus testing websites referred to as the Heart for COVID Management, now underneath scrutiny by the Facilities for Medicare and Medicaid Providers, the Oregon Division of Justice and a number of state well being departments.

Take a look at-takers on the firm’s greater than 300 places throughout the U.S. have reported the websites to state and native authorities, saying they obtained delayed take a look at outcomes, no outcomes or a number of conflicting outcomes, amongst different issues. The corporate has the Higher Enterprise Bureau’s lowest buyer overview ranking, and social media pages and Google opinions for the websites are stuffed with complaints.

A federal company has documented quite a few “deficiencies” on the firm’s foremost lab, Docs Scientific Lab, which has been reimbursed greater than $124 million from the federal authorities’s COVID-19 uninsured program, based on public knowledge. Personal well being insurers had been additionally paying the corporate.

At its peak, the corporate mentioned it was gathering greater than 80,000 assessments per day. The federal authorities has reimbursed some labs at a charge of $100 per PCR take a look at. It was not instantly clear how a lot the lab was billing personal insurance coverage firms. 

Whereas a lot concerning the firm stays unclear, one factor is definite: Longtime entrepreneurs Syed, 35, and his spouse, Aleya Siyaj, 29, are behind the operation. And – till current days – they have been unabashed on social media about their rising wealth.

What’s the Heart for COVID Management, and the way did it come to be?

All through the COVID-19 pandemic, america has struggled to supply fast, simple and correct coronavirus testing. Practically two years later, the Biden administration continues to be rolling out plans for insurance coverage firms to cowl the price of over-the-counter assessments and introducing a web site the place Individuals can order free assessments.

The Illinois-based Heart for COVID Management cropped up in 2020 to fill a gap available in the market. Siyaj, who the corporate refers to because the “CEO and founder,” registered the corporate in December that 12 months, state information present.

“CCC was based to fulfill a essential market want to determine testing facilities the place COVID assessments could possibly be offered to sufferers quickly and safely to attenuate delay, and let folks get on with their each day actions,” Siyaj mentioned in a press release Thursday. An organization spokesperson didn’t reply to requests for remark Friday and Saturday.

The Heart for COVID Management’s principal and mailing handle is in Rolling Meadows, Illinois – a one-story industrial workplace constructing about 15 miles northwest of O’Hare Worldwide Airport.

The corporate says it “primarily makes use of” Docs Scientific Lab as a scientific testing vendor accomplice. However based on public information, the lab is registered with the U.S. Meals and Drug Administration on the identical Rolling Meadows handle because the Heart for COVID Management.

A federal company underneath the U.S. Division of Well being and Human Providers is investigating the lab for a number of alleged situations of misconduct. Workers work out of an workplace on the handle and reply requires each the lab and Heart for COVID Management, the company says in public filings. Syed and Siyaj each work out of that workplace as effectively.

As Heart for COVID Management testing websites cropped up all through the U.S., Syed documented the corporate’s journey on his public social media pages.

In a single since-deleted Fb video posted July 29, 2021, Syed, underneath the Fb identify “Akbar Syed Raza,” exhibits viewers round what he says is a Heart for COVID Management workplace. Within the video, Syed summons a person named “Neal.” Prompted by Syed, the person informs viewers he began working for the corporate in March.

“So what’s your annual wage at proper now?” Syed asks.

“1.4-5 mil,” the person responds.

On his public TikTok account, which was taken down Thursday, Syed usually shared pictures and movies of high-end automobiles. Syed’s nephew, an worker of the corporate, additionally chronicled the household’s rising automotive assortment on his public YouTube channel.

In an Aug. 15 submit, Syed shared a picture of what seems to be a child blue Lamborghini on stage at an public sale. “bidding on one in all my dream automotive,” he wrote. Ten days later, Syed shared a video of a blue Lamborghini being unloaded from a truck in entrance of his residence. “Dilevery Day!” he wrote.

4 days later, on Aug. 29, he shared the video of the crimson Lamborghini Countach being unloaded from a truck.

In a Sept. 5 video, two autos may be seen racing down the road. “Huracan Vs R8 #lamborghini #audi #r8 #hurcan,” Syed wrote. Later that month, he shared a video of himself approaching the surface of the house, getting ready to shock his spouse. “spouse wished a non 5g telephone,” he wrote.

On the floor, the Heart for COVID Management gave the impression to be going effectively for Siyaj and Syed by means of early fall. It was not the couple’s first enterprise enterprise.

Earlier than COVID testing: Wedding ceremony movies, donuts and axe-throwing

Again so far as 2013, Syed was working a marriage ceremony picture and video firm, based on former prospects and archived pages of the enterprise’ web site.

Within the final 5 years, Siyaj, his spouse, has launched no less than six companies, based on Illinois public information.

Siyaj is listed because the proprietor of O’s Donuts & Cafe Inc, which was included in 2017 and involuntarily dissolved in November 2020, based on Illinois information. The corporate was licensed in Michigan from 2018 to 2020, based on state information.

Subsequent got here axe-throwing: In early 2019, Siyaj established Axe Vary, Inc, then, in 2020, Axe Lounge LLC, which was involuntarily dissolved the next 12 months.

From 2020 to 2021, Siyaj established Aenaz LLC, Lom Investments LLC and Testing Options, Inc. An Illinois resident listed because the agent for all three companies can be listed because the agent for Heart for COVID Management.

‘Simply enter ‘COVID take a look at close to me’ within the Google search bar’

The Heart for COVID Management started experiencing bother on the finish of 2021, because the omicron variant of the coronavirus arrived within the U.S. Circumstances surged amid the vacation season and Individuals frantically flocked to testing websites.

“Simply enter ‘COVID take a look at close to me’ within the Google search bar and yow will discover numerous completely different places close by the place you may get examined,” President Joe Biden mentioned in an handle to the nation in late December.

Tens of hundreds of Individuals did as Biden mentioned. Many stumbled upon listings for Heart for COVID Management websites and, with no appointments wanted, hopped in line for assessments. Enterprise for the corporate elevated, however to such a level that testing websites turned overwhelmed, revealing cracks within the delicate system.

Complaints started to emerge on the corporate’s social media pages and on site-specific Google opinions on the finish of 2021. Rumors concerning the websites swirled by means of Chicago, and one citizen journalist even launched his personal investigation into the corporate.

In the meantime, Siyaj and Syed continued to share their luxurious life-style on social media.

In November, Siyaj turned the proprietor of a $1.36 million residence in Saint Charles, Illinois, in accordance Kane County information. A Zillow itemizing for the property exhibits a 3.65-acre lot on a non-public highway with a gated entry, three-car storage, round entrance driveway, fountain, white pillars, iron double doorways, crystal chandeliers and a curved floating staircase.

A Dec. 10 video posted to the YouTube channel run by Syed’s nephew options the “unveiling” of a 2018 Ford GT. An equivalent 2018 Ford GT was bought for $985,000 on Dec. 3, based on Deliver a Trailer Auctions.

Two movies posted to the YouTube channel Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 present the 2018 Ford GT sitting within the driveway of the Saint Charles residence. Within the first, the lyrics “child I’m a gangster too” play because the video rotates across the car. The second video seems to point out the automotive and residential shot from above by a drone.

Just lately, Syed shared movies on Fb of himself getting right into a Ferrari Enzo.

On Dec. 22, 2021, a 2003 Ferrari Enzo – one in all solely 400 ever made by the acute sports activities automotive builder – was auctioned off for $3.7 million to an individual in Illinois, based on a web based public sale home. Supercars.internet reported the sale set a world report as “the best sale worth achieved on a web based automotive public sale platform” and “the best sale worth achieved for a Ferrari Enzo at a web based public sale.”

USA TODAY first reported on the Heart for COVID Management in early January, after a reporter encountered one of many websites working out of a generator-powered cell storage unit in Chicago, the place luggage of assessments sat piled in crates on the bottom. Six days later, the corporate ordered a one-week “pause” on the gathering of assessments.

“During the last week, now we have seen elevated scrutiny by the media into the operations of our assortment websites,” the corporate mentioned in an inside memo to staff, obtained by USA TODAY. “This, coupled with numerous buyer complaints, resulted in numerous state well being departments and even Division of Justice taking a eager curiosity in our firm.”

Whereas native, state and federal authorities have been cautioning Individuals for months towards visiting “pop-up” testing websites, none talked about the Heart for COVID Management by identify – regardless that a federal company was conscious of rampant mismanagement on the foremost laboratory as early as November.

‘Non-compliance’ and ‘deficiencies’ at Docs Scientific Lab

The Facilities for Medicare and Medicaid Providers, a part of the U.S. Division of Well being and Human Providers, mentioned it carried out surveys at a number of Heart for COVID Management testing websites and “the principle laboratory” in November and December and located “non-compliance” with quite a few requirements, affecting greater than 400,000 assessments. The company on Friday mentioned it was ready for a response from the lab to the cited “deficiencies.”

An 81-page report discovered the lab was in “quick jeopardy.” Amongst different issues, the report discovered the lab did not guarantee all personnel had acceptable coaching, did not have acceptable tools, didn’t adjust to state reporting necessities, didn’t get hold of a required state lab license, didn’t keep confidentiality of affected person data, didn’t precisely establish affected person samples submitted for PCR testing and didn’t doc complaints and issues reported to the lab.

Over 11 days in November, the lab obtained greater than 84,000 samples for PCR testing however carried out and reported simply greater than 43,000 outcomes, the report discovered. The lab director didn’t have sufficient employees to carry out the testing inside 72 hours after assortment and didn’t have the correct freezers to appropriately retailer the samples, based on the report.

Requested concerning the report, Heart for COVID Management spokesperson Russ Keene mentioned: “The audit is of DCL; CCC has no skill or energy to publicly remark upon it.”

“As a key vendor/provider, CCC has reviewed the report with DCL, and labored with DCL in establishing DCL’s 10-Day response and dialogue of corrective actions of things recognized within the audit,” Keene mentioned,

The federal report suggests, nevertheless, the companies are working collectively. Docs Scientific Lab and the Heart for COVID Management are positioned on the identical handle, and staff who work on the lab’s name heart discuss with themselves as Heart for COVID Management staff, based on the report.

Christina Morales, 29, labored on the foremost lab – what she known as “headquarters” – from July by means of December within the knowledge entry division, name heart and receiving division. A pay stub obtained by USA TODAY was despatched from the Heart for COVID Management.

Morales informed USA TODAY she was employed after a buddy at a karaoke bar gave her the quantity for one of many firm’s managers. The following day, she walked into the unlocked workplace constructing and commenced doing knowledge entry for the lab.

“I actually simply signed a direct deposit type and a tax type. I by no means signed a HIPAA settlement or something like that,” Morales mentioned. “It was just a little scary.”

Morales mentioned Syed and Siyaj labored out of the workplace, and Syed’s automobiles may usually be seen parked exterior. Nobody within the workplace wore face masks or gloves, she mentioned, count on when inspectors came visiting. For a number of months, employees had been placing biohazardous waste in common trash luggage and diposing it in common trash bins, she mentioned.

Inside three weeks, Morales was supervising the information entry workforce, overseeing 30 folks. On the time, the corporate had about 40 to 60 places was processing about 1,200 assessments a day, she mentioned.

“I form of saved my head down for some time as a result of cash actually does discuss, they usually had been paying very well,” she mentioned. “It appeared that each week or each different week we had been opening up one other three places. That’s once I observed my workforce began having points maintaining and catching up.”

Morales mentioned Heart for COVID Management operations started to crumble in late October amid a backlog of assessments, which arrived from in-state and out-of-state with none ice packs and had been usually disregarded within the heat workplace for days on finish. USA TODAY reviewed a video taken contained in the workplace displaying plastic luggage of assessments in cardboard containers on the bottom alongside unopened containers of assessments.

“We had been nonetheless instructed to course of assessments that had been per week previous,” Morales mentioned.

By December, the lab was receiving about 12,000 assessments a day, however there have been solely 34 folks on the information entry workforce, she mentioned. “We had been behind as a result of they didn’t rent sufficient folks to accommodate for the entire places,” she mentioned. “Going from 65 places to 300 within the span of some months, how do you count on us to maintain up?”

The decision heart was receiving “tons of” of calls, Morales mentioned, and the lab was 5 to 6 days behind on processing assessments. “We might inform them I’m sorry, your outcomes got here again inconclusive, it’s worthwhile to go and re-test. These had been our directions from the director of operations,” Morales mentioned.

Morales mentioned prospects’ delicate private data was shared freely on numerous firm WhatsApp teams, which mechanically obtain photographs to cell telephones. “My telephone was simply form of getting flooded with private data being despatched by the placement managers on a regular basis,” she mentioned.

One other employees member who labored at headquarters confirmed Morales’ account.

In the meantime, the Docs Scientific Lab location in Rolling Meadows has been reimbursed greater than $113.7 million for testing and almost $9 million for therapy by means of the COVID-19 Claims Reimbursement to Well being Care Suppliers and Services for Testing, Therapy, and Vaccine Administration for the Uninsured Program, based on public knowledge. A Chicago location has been reimbursed almost $1.Four million for testing and almost $50,000 for therapy.

The American Rescue Plan Act offered $4.eight billion to reimburse suppliers for testing the uninsured, and the Households First Coronavirus Response Act Aid Fund and the Paycheck Safety Program and Well being Care Enhancement Act every appropriated $1 billion.

No coaching at take a look at websites: ‘I didn’t know as a result of no person informed me’

Workers of Heart for COVID Management testing websites informed USA TODAY they didn’t obtain coaching on HIPAA compliance and weren’t supplied with the tools to make sure PCR assessments stayed at steady temperatures.

Bravette Fleet mentioned he began working at a testing web site in Chicago in October. However it was greater than a month earlier than the location secured a fridge for the take a look at samples, he mentioned.

“We might simply sit them on a desk and line them up and on the finish of the day bag them up in order that the motive force can come choose them up,” he mentioned.

Fleet mentioned he lastly realized he was alleged to be putting PCR samples in a fridge when he took it upon himself to learn a guide left on the web site.

“After I learn by means of the guide concerning the steps we had been alleged to take, I noticed we weren’t taking them,” Fleet mentioned. “All of this stuff we weren’t doing that I didn’t know as a result of no person informed me.”

Figuring out of an workplace house with no Wi-Fi, Fleet mentioned he usually despatched folks their take a look at outcomes from his private cellphones. Certainly one of Fleet’s former co-workers confirmed his account.

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Heather Doty, a former microbiology lab analyst at Cardinal Well being, mentioned she began as a lab tech at a web site in Hampshire, Illinois, on Dec. 6. “I had two hours and 45 minutes of coaching, and the following day was my first day alone,” Doty mentioned.

Doty mentioned her coaching consisted of observing web site operations. She was not required to learn any coaching materials. She mentioned she started elevating issues on the primary day and introduced points to the proprietor’s consideration.

“There’s sure issues that as a lab tech, it’s normal data, frequent sense,” Doty mentioned. “Having an ethical consciousness, I used to be not OK with simply letting issues go.”

Devon Townsend, 18, mentioned he has loved working at a web site in Wisconsin, although he’s conscious of stories of points at different places. A freshman at UW Madison learning pre-med, Townsend mentioned he began working on the web site over winter break.

“There was no coaching required previous to opening,” he mentioned, however staff obtained a written information for overview.

Earlier than the location paused take a look at assortment, Townsend mentioned he labored from open to shut every day. Talking concerning the firm broadly, he mentioned: “It’s not like we’re out right here attempting to do anybody mistaken, however folks get all upset a few missed take a look at consequence. We are attempting our greatest, I promise.”

In an inside e-mail obtained by USA TODAY that was despatched to staff of a Chicago testing web site, all employees members had been requested to finish two coaching periods – one from the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention and one on HIPAA compliance – and add proof of their coaching certificates by Friday to a public Docs Scientific Laboratory jotform.

Every coaching was anticipated to take roughly one hour, based on the e-mail, which was despatched and signed by the chief assistant of a automotive wash chain who was additionally working as a web site supervisor.

Requested about allegations made by former staff of the principle lab, in addition to these on the testing websites, Keene mentioned: “CCC fields such feedback with nice concern.”

“Such occurrences and practices are clearly not acceptable,” Keene mentioned. The corporate’s “operational pause,” he mentioned, was “supposed to eradicate any deviations from firm insurance policies and return CCC to a trusted, nationwide supplier of accessible, correct, reasonably priced/no price Covid-19 assessments, providing peace of thoughts to hundreds of sufferers who entrust us with this essential mission.”

The lab can be going through scrutiny for its use of a trademarked brand. DCL Company, a pigments provider, despatched a a cease-and-desist letter to the corporate Monday for a trademark violation. An internet site for Docs Scientific Lab, take a look at varieties and emails despatched to check recipients characteristic DCL Company’s trademarked brand.

Have extra details about the Heart for COVID Management? Electronic mail reporter Grace Hauck at ghauck@usatoday.com.


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