By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Former directors from one of the first organ transplant centers in the United States agreed on Thursday to plead guilty to health care and mail fraud over a kickbacks scheme, officials said.
The U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Alabama said in a statement the two executives from the Alabama Organ Center had been accused of receiving nearly $500,000 in kickbacks from a funeral home that did business with the organ center.
In exchange for the kickbacks, the pair promoted the funeral home and recommended its hiring by the organ center for services paid for by the Health Services Foundation, the statement said.
"The defendants oversaw the Organ Center's finances and business dealings. They violated this trust by taking a half million dollars, lining their pockets instead of doing their jobs honestly," Joyce Vance, U.S. Attorney, said.
The statement did not outline what services the funeral home could have been contracted for, but said there was no evidence that the pair's conduct endangered organ or tissue donors or recipients.
Organ procurement centers often pay for added funeral expenses related to organ donation, such as the extra time and expense of preparing the body.
The center's former director Demosthenes Yanga Lalisan, 45, and former associate director Richard Alan Hicks, 39, were accused of committing the crimes between 2003 through July 2011. The U.S. Attorney's statement said they had each entered separate plea agreements with the government but did not say what penalties they might face.
The Alabama Organ Center began in 1968 as a pioneer organization for organ transplants. It provides organs to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one of the premier transplant hospitals in the nation.
UAB transplants heart, lung, liver, kidney, pancreas, and bone marrow and serves as one of 16 Medicare-approved heart transplant centers. The Center served the State of Alabama as the federally designated organ procurement provider.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)