Inside Pride's Inglewood clinic, between a dairy mart and a gas station on busy Crenshaw Boulevard, a small lobby was empty April 3, save for artificial plants and a 1990s-era anti-alcohol poster.
A receptionist told reporters there were no counseling sessions that day.
The office offered no group therapy on Wednesdays, she specified, in an exchange caught on a video camera hidden in a watch.
Yet billing records obtained by CIR and CNN show that Pride Health Services charged taxpayers for counseling 60 people at the clinic that day, at a cost of about $1,600. The clinic was reimbursed for 62 patients the following Wednesday as well.
Nwogene, whose salary has reached as high as $120,000 a year, did not respond to requests for an interview or to a letter seeking responses to specific allegations. When reporters asked for him at Pride's Inglewood clinic, a staffer denied wrongdoing. Workers then called police and closed the office mid-day.
Fake diagnoses among foster children
In California's public drug rehab program, clients equal cash. State and federal taxpayer money flows to the local privately run clinics based on the number of people they serve. The counseling is free to those on Medi-Cal.
California spent nearly $186 million on the program in the past two fiscal years, according to figures from the Department of Health Care Services. That doesn't include methadone clinics for heroin addicts, a separate wing of Drug Medi-Cal.
The state has the nation's largest population of people who qualify for the benefit, a pool poised to grow sharply under the Affordable Care Act. But recent history suggests that expansion might shovel more funding to clinics that game the system.
A specialty of So Cal Health Services, the Riverside clinic to which Victoria Byers was sent, was diagnosing foster children with fabricated drug and alcohol problems and billing taxpayers for the unneeded services, according to former employees and whistle-blower complaints.
The clinic billed Riverside County between $31 and $75 for each counseling session a child attended, documents show.
"You'd have to make up a summary of them trying this drug and make up scenarios of how they tried it, how they got it," said Nadine Cornelius, a former counselor. "It was all lies."
Cornelius tried making her group therapy sessions educational, she said during an interview at a diner near her San Bernardino County home. But eventually, she gave up. Instead, she said she let the teenagers play bingo and watch movies.
An anonymous whistle-blower told county officials that So Cal was paying group homes for "access" to the foster children. Byers' group home director, Angelina Farmer, told CIR that wasn't the case.
Riverside County cut So Cal Health Services' contract in 2010 because so many of its clients had dropped out. That failure was easier to prove than the fake diagnoses of teenagers, according to Karen Kane, the county's substance abuse program administrator.
Kane said her agency was especially concerned that a false addiction diagnosis could negatively affect the foster children later in life.
"Our goal was to stop them from harming people and get them out of the business -- and that's what we did," Kane said.
By then, the county already had paid So Cal $1 million, dating back to mid-2007.
After the closure, clinic director Tim Ejindu moved some staff members from Riverside to his other clinic in eastern Los Angeles County. There, under the red-tiled roof of the Pomona Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center, problems persisted.
Shearer, the Pomona center's assistant program manager before she left last year, said the overriding goal of the operation was to "get money." Staff billed for therapy that didn't happen, she said. They billed for clients who didn't show up. They billed for pizza parties and basketball games as if they were counseling sessions.
Ejindu was authoritarian and intimidating, said Shearer, who worked for him for six years. Inexperienced counselors making $9 an hour were under constant stress, she said, caught between doing something unethical and losing their jobs if they refused.
"And he made it very clear that your job depended on what you do and what you don't do," Shearer said.
When a government auditor showed up for an annual review, she said Ejindu would have his staff sneak files into his office so he could examine them. Then, Shearer said, he would send the files back to the counselor to change before the auditor saw them.
"Mind you, there's no way to ... go back and correct," she said. "There's only forgery."
Ejindu, who tax records show makes $150,000 a year running the clinic, branched out last year to provide addiction counseling at seven middle and high schools in the Pomona Unified School District.