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Former head of at-risk youth nonprofit sentenced to prison

Umar Adeyola says his goal was to help at-risk teens avoid the criminal justice system.

On Thursday, he was the one standing in front of a judge.

Adeyola, head of the HEART Foundation in Buffalo, was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in a scheme to cheat local health insurers and a California nonprofit group.

He was also ordered to pay $364,377 in restitution.

"I never imagined I would be here as a defendant," Adeyola told U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo.

Adeyola also revealed in court that he has multiple sclerosis.

Adeyola's sentence ends a case that brought unwanted attention to HEART (Helping Empower At-Risk Teens), a group that provided support services for young people, many of them in the criminal justice system.

Founded in 2008, the organization over the years gained the support of judges and other court diversion advocates.

Behind the scenes, Adeyola, 48, was engaged in a scheme to overcharge Blue Cross Blue Shield, Univera Healthcare and Independent Health for the services it provided, prosecutors said Thursday.

He also cheated the Latino Coalition for Faith and Community Leadership in California and its federally funded program to help adults and high school dropouts prepare for employment.

"He wasn't pocketing this money," said Brian Comerford, an assistant federal public defender. "His motivation was to keep the organization running."

Prosecutors painted a far different portrait of Adeyola and his legacy of fraud.

They noted that, in 2001, he pleaded guilty to identity theft and admitted obtaining the personal information of General Motors employees in the Town of Tonawanda and using those identities to obtain fraudulent consumer loans. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison.

Eight years later, Adeyola pleaded guilty again, this time in a case charging him with fraud and making false statements.

"Not just once. Not just twice," Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura K. O'Donnell said of his previous crimes. "This is his third time."

In 2011, the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency set aside $2.18 million to build housing for homeless veterans on Buffalo's East Side, a project sponsored by HEART.

The city later withdrew support for the project after reporters from The Buffalo News raised questions about Adeyola's background.

[Related: Funds pulled from city project tied to ex-con]

In sentencing Adeyola, Vilardo pointed to his group's goals and why its failure hurts other nonprofit organizations.

"It's a shame because I think the organization was started with good intentions," he said Thursday. "I also think it's a shame because it gives programs like this a bad name."

But while prosecutors asked for a 78 month sentence, Villardo sentenced Adeyola to 60 months because there was no evidence he personally benefited from the fraud and it appeared the overbilled funding was used to keep the program running.

Adeyola's conviction is the result of an investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Labor.

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