TOMS RIVER, NJ — As the opioid crisis was exploding across New Jersey in 2015 and 2016, authorities were searching for ways not only to fight overdoses but also to help people break away from addiction.
Soon, there was a name heard regularly around Ocean County: John Brogan. Brogan was a Toms River resident who had been telling his story of recovery from heroin addiction, a story that had been highlighted by then-Gov. Chris Christie in his 2016 State of the State address.
Soon Brogan was telling his story on a wider scale — to state legislators around the country and to Congress in Washington, DC, all while promoting peer recovery counseling as the path to breaking addiction.
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Behind the scenes, according to a report from the New Jersey State Commission on Investigation, Brogan was manipulating patients and addiction recovery facilities to enrich himself through referrals and access to clients. through his connections to multiple agencies
“If there was such a thing as a rising star within the addiction rehabilitation industry in New Jersey, John Brogan was it,” the report, released Tuesday, said. “He also set the gold standard for how to work the system to his advantage.”
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Brogan’s activities were highlighted in the commission’s report, titled “The Dirty Business Behind Getting Clean: Fraud, Ethical Misconduct and Corruption in the Addiction Rehabilitation Industry,” the result of an in-depth investigation into abuses in the industry. Read more: Addiction Recovery Abuses In NJ Fueled By Lax Oversight: State Report
In 2015 and 2016, authorities around New Jersey were sounding the alarm about a sharp increase in heroin addiction and overdoses. By the end of 2015 the state had seen a nearly 30 percent increase in fatal overdoses, rising from 1,223 in 2012 to 1,587, and as 2016 began, the number ofE deaths was showing no signs of slowing down.
Authorities worked a multitude of avenues to try to address the crisis. Free naloxone was distributed, including in schools, to reverse opioid overdoses. Education efforts focused heavily on warning people of the dangers and extreme addictive qualities of opioid prescription medications including OxyContin, the Purdue Pharma opioid that has been blamed for fueling so much of the crisis.
The other prong of the effort was trying to help those addicted get into treatment. That’s where Brogan, the former heroin addict turned self-proclaimed addiction recovery specialist, found his opening, the SCI report says.
“Brogan was a frequent speaker and panelist at addiction support events throughout the state, sitting alongside respected experts in the field, judges and politicians,” the report says. “Online photos showed Brogan meeting with members of Congress and posing with top state law enforcement leaders at various venues, including the White House.”
Included among them were Joseph Coronato, then the Ocean County prosecutor, Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden and then-Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni. Brogan appears in multiple photos with both men at a variety of addiction recovery events.
The SCI report says Brogan used those relationships “to gain access to clients and advance his own financial interests, defrauding the criminal justice system along the way and creating a model used by other peer recovery coaches in New Jersey to engage in brokering-like conduct as recently as 2022.”
Brogan — who died of an overdose in June 2020 — opened Lifeline Recovery Services (trade name Recovery Solutions) in 2016.
“Although Brogan sometimes assisted individuals with Medicaid and the uninsured, by trying to find a Medicaid facility or getting them a ‘scholarship’ that paid their way, there was no profit in those clients,” the report said. “The real payoff was those who had private health insurance. Those clients were the ones Brogan would send to treatment centers that – unbeknownst to the client – were also paying him simultaneously.”
The report said Brogan charged clients anywhere from $250 to $30,000, while at the same time receiving payments from some facilities for patient referrals. In all, he was paid nearly $600,000 between 2017 and 2018, the SCI report said.
Brogan worked as a consultant and in salaried jobs for mostly out-of-state addiction treatment centers, with his titles often focused on marketing or outreach, the reports said.
“One offer letter from a California-based center for a job that Brogan told the Commission he turned down stated, ‘Our expectation and position is to produce three client sales per month,’ ” the report said.
Most centers weren’t as explicit about patient referrals, Brogan told the commission in testimony in 2019, but “the practice was well entrenched in the industry,” the report said.
“I don’t think a client should ever be sent there for a form of payment,” the report said, quoting Brogan. “However, as I’ve gone through this process, the entire industry is built on that, from the hospital to the treatment center to the grant-funded organizations. It’s all based on that client coming through the door.”
The report noted Brogan was credited with helping the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office launch the Next Step Program, which connected inmates battling addiction with recovery coaches.
That program was modeled after the Blue HART (Heroin Addiction Response Team) program in Ocean County, where people battling addiction could seek help from the police department without fear of prosecution.
Brogan helped create the program, which launched in December 2017 in Brick and Manchester as the HARP program and later changed its name.
“Even though the (Monmouth County) Sheriff’s Office already had a program helping place Monmouth County Correctional Institute inmates into treatment, Brogan allegedly claimed he could obtain services for them more quickly and without the need to wait for beds to become available,” the report said.
“Yet, few details were made public about how the program worked. The Sheriff’s Office did not have a contract to pay Brogan or Lifeline, had no policies or procedures to oversee the arrangement and kept no statistics on the program that effectively set up a client pipeline from the jail to a private treatment facility.”
“The Commission uncovered evidence suggesting the Sheriff’s Office was unaware of the entities and individuals involved with Brogan and the Next Step Program,” the report said. “A Westchester, Pennsylvania outpatient treatment center was funding the salaries of Brogan’s recovery coaches who were entering the jail. The treatment center, which has since closed its doors, was owned in part by a Florida resident with a prior conviction for mail and wire fraud. This individual attended meetings with Brogan and the Sheriff’s Office, yet personnel with the Sheriff’s Office were unclear as to his role and unaware of his criminal history.”
In Ocean County, the Blue HART program expanded to multiple towns was heavily promoted by the towns and the Ocean County prosecutor’s office until Coronato’s term ended in 2018, when Gov. Phil Murphy appointed Bradley D. Billhimer to the position.
Coronato’s term ended not long after he was named in a whistleblower lawsuit by Michel A. Paulhus, the former executive assistant prosecutor, whom Coronato fired in July 2018, saying it was for creating a hostile work environment. Coronato later said Paulhus had sexually harassed two members of the prosecutor’s office staff, Jersey Shore Online reported.
Paulhus alleged Coronato fired him after Paulhus raised concerns about potentially criminal behavior by Brogan in connection with the efforts to get heroin addicts into drug treatment and recovery programs.
The lawsuit was settled in December 2022, with Paulhus receiving more than $1 million from Ocean County, while the county admitted no wrongdoing.
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Coronato did not reply to a Patch request for comment for this article.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit — which SCI said were corroborated in its investigation — were accusations that Brogan had extorted clients, encouraged one young woman to use drugs to gain admittance to treatment and had sent others on probation to out-of-state facilities in violation of court orders.
Several people who had worked for Brogan at Lifeline testified before the commission that Brogan had misled multiple clients about the probation rules and never informed the court after arranging for the clients’ attendance at treatment centers outside New Jersey “even after reassuring them he would do so,” the report said.
Going out of state violated their probation, and some clients did not learn there was a warrant for their arrest for violating probation until they returned home to New Jersey, the report said.
Brogan also gave preferential treatment to clients who were related to law enforcement officials or who Brogan knew personally, bypassing or manipulating legal protocols, the report said.
“One such client was the son of a financial professional with a longtime business relationship with Brogan,” the report said. “In August 2018, the client was accepted into the Next Step Program, given a nine-point treatment/recovery plan overseen by Lifeline, and submitted to prosecutors and the court. Weeks into the program, the client, who had struggled to maintain sobriety and adhere to particular elements of his plan, posted a video online of himself drinking vodka.”
Multiple witnesses told SCI that the client ignored “numerous parts of the treatment sobriety plan.”
“Not only did the client never attend the outpatient treatment program, but he rarely showed up at Lifeline for family therapy sessions,” the report said. “There was also no indication that the client ever underwent any court-mandated urine tests to check for drug or alcohol use. Despite all this, in October 2018, Lifeline sent a letter to the courts advising the client was sober and had complied with the terms of his probation, with no mention of any problems.”
Brogan later hired the former client as a recovery coach at Lifeline, the report said.
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