Camden nonprofit administrator pleads guilty to embezzling

Agents take evidence from the Nueva Vida Behavioral Health Center of N.J. in Camden.

Maria Tavera, an administrator at a nonprofit community health center in Camden, pleaded guilty Friday to embezzling. She is the third official at the nonprofit to plead guilty in the last month to embezzling or defrauding the center.

Tavera, 53, who worked at Nueva Vida Behavioral Health Center, faces possible prison time for stealing more than $40,000 from a health-care benefit program operated by the nonprofit. She appeared Friday morning in U.S. District Court in Camden with her attorney, Gilbert Scutti, and a translator in front of Judge Noel Hillman.

Tavera’s husband, Cesar, the former executive director of Nueva Vida and its founder, pleaded guilty in May to health-care fraud and embezzling from a health-care program. Andres Ayala, a former therapist at the center, pleaded guilty in May to a charge of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud. Ayala and Cesar are each awaiting sentencing in August.

The judge set a Sept. 15 sentencing date for Maria Tavera. Embezzling more than $100 from a federal health-care benefit plan carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. But the guidelines agreed to in her plea agreement call for a sentence of  six months to a year, and the judge will have the option to impose probation and house arrest in substitution for prison time.

She will also likely have to pay restitution to the victims, including patients.

The Taveras, of Cherry Hill, regularly used the center’s credit and debit cards to pay for personal expenses.

Maria Tavera admitted Friday to embezzling money from the Nueva Vida bank account and spending it on dental expenses as well as purchases at a guitar store and of clothes and hardware.

Tavera, who was making her initial court appearance, was released Friday on the condition that she appear at her September sentencing hearing. She did not have to post money or property as part of her bail but would owe $100,000 if she failed to appear at her sentencing.

Following her guilty plea, Tavera was ordered to disassociate from Nueva Vida, a point of contention between the prosecution and the defense.

Scutti, her attorney, argued that she should be able to work for the center as long as she did not interact with any witnesses in a pending investigation of the center. But Hillman sided with the prosecution, which argued that given the investigation and nature of the charge to which Tavera pleaded guilty, it was not appropriate for her to continue working at the center.

“If some proposal can be made in the future … that doesn’t provide a risk to government or present [Tavera] an opportunity to contact witnesses or victims, then I may consider it,” Hillman said.

Nueva Vida has been in Camden since 1998. Cesar Tavera founded the clinic with the intention of serving the city’s Spanish-speaking population. The center provides mental-health services to its patients. The FBI raided the health center in August 2016.

Cesar Tavera admitted in May to often embezzling money from the Nueva Vida bank account — more than $1.5 million in total — and spending it on meals, travel, and gambling at the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia, among other things.

Cesar Tavera also admitted to having unlicensed and unqualified therapists treat patients who were Medicaid recipients and subsequently billing Medicaid as if qualified therapists treated the patients. Cesar Tavera himself treated patients, even though he was not qualified to do so.

Additionally, Nueva Vida billed Medicaid for therapy that did not happen and billed group therapy as if each patient instead received individual treatment. Cesar Tavera created false records to pass Medicaid audits.

He watched in the courtroom Friday as his wife entered her guilty plea.

Scutti said that the center’s board of directors recently appointed Nelson Cuello to take over operation of the nonprofit.