A former business owner with a history of lavish personal spending and fraudulent business practices now faces new questions about whether she had cancer.
Phoenix — An influential former Valley business owner with a history of lavish personal spending and fraudulent business practices now faces new questions about whether she was truthful about having stage 3 breast cancer.
“Honestly, I never believed she had cancer,” said Michael Koehler, a former office administrator for Bridget O’Brien who worked at Head to Toe for eight years. “It (the diagnosis) just came at the right time when everybody was coming after her for their paychecks, and she didn’t know what to tell them.”
O’Brien declined to answer questions to 12News Wednesday. Her attorney, former Attorney General Tom Horne, told a 12News reporter he did not have the facts and was engaged in unethical journalism.
“Check your facts,” Horne said sharply before entering a courtroom.
A double-mastectomy and chemotherapy
Bridget O’Brien operated several companies, including what was once the state’s largest physical therapy and speech pathology clinic for children, Head to Toe Therapy.
Faced with accusations of withholding pay from dozens of therapists who treated children with special needs, O’Brien told 12News in 2018 she had stage 3 breast cancer and was in the midst of a series of financial hardships.
“I know that my heart is in the right place, and I have done everything that I possibly can within my own power,” O’Brien said at the time.
O’Brien underwent a double mastectomy and was undergoing chemotherapy, O’Brien said.
Two former nannies of O’Brien told 12News the charismatic business owner had a habit of spending lavishly on luxury items and vacations, even though her company was in financial distress and therapists were owed payment for services.
During an emergency meeting with therapists in 2018 about the company’s finances, O’Brien was recorded saying she was aware of rumors that she made up her cancer diagnosis and she hoped everyone would come together “as a team” to support her. She was hopeful a bank lender would help her, she was recorded saying because his wife also had cancer.
Doubts about O’Brien’s cancer claim
During the following months, 12News uncovered allegations of misspending and fraud filed with the state against O’Brien dating back to as early as 2010.
Therapists and office workers also had doubts about O’Brien’s cancer claim.
“She was asking for sympathy and understanding,” said Lara Trepanier, who worked for O’Brien as a Speech Language Pathology Assistant. “You want to believe someone who tells you they have cancer because that’s not something you lie about. When she was back at the clinic within days after her supposed surgery, it was that on top of other things that made it very unbelievable.”
Prompted by investigations by 12News, the state cut Medicaid funding to O’Brien’s company in 2019, citing evidence that included creating false documents, billing for services not provided, and double-billing for services. O’Brien owned several properties at the time. Therapists and former acquaintances questioned her financial decisions that left many contractors unpaid.
“It’s incredible, the negative impact that she had,” Trepanier said.
Amid public scrutiny by 12News and threats of lawsuits, O’Brien paid back many therapists in amounts ranging from $2,000 to $8,000. Some never got paid. O’Brien always maintained she did nothing intentionally wrong with finances.
“Evidence has come to light”
A recent lawsuit filed against O’Brien brought her claim of breast cancer back to the forefront. The claimant, Valley real estate agency NAI Horizon, alleged O’Brien broke a contract involving the sale of properties.
“We’re here to fight for all professionals that hold real estate licenses in Arizona,” said Michael Myrick, a commercial real estate broker for NAI, standing outside of federal bankruptcy court in downtown Phoenix on Wednesday.
According to Myrick, his attempts to work with O’Brien last year to sell her properties involved a series of “scheming and shell games and avoiding foreclosure” by O’Brien.
Myrick claims in court records O’Brien owes him about $150,000 for his services. The complaint accuses O’Brien of “a pattern of conduct with properties being moved back and forth” that breached her contract with NAI.
O’Brien’s defense involved cancer. She provided a written statement to NAI claiming the real estate decisions she made were intended to protect her two children’s financial future because O’Brien knew she might die from stage 3 breast cancer.
“Unexpectedly, I survived,” O’Brien wrote in the statement.
“Any and all documents… regarding your alleged illness”
O’Brien’s lack of a “veracity for truth,” as described in legal proceedings, came under scrutiny.
The claimant alleged evidence showed O’Brien had a history of “using illness” as an excuse for lack of “financial performance.”
“Evidence has come to light that Ms. O’Brien either exaggerated her illness or never was terminally ill in the first place,” Attorney Gerald Shelley wrote in court records.
As early as November 5th, Shelley requested “any and all documents… or other evidence… regarding your alleged illness.” O’Brien and Horne never provided a document reflecting a cancer diagnosis or treatment.
“I feel something as serious as a cancer diagnosis would render that type of paperwork,” Trepanier told 12News.
During the three-hour trial Wednesday, Horne told the judge he objected to the request for medical records “pursuant to the rules.”
“There has been an attack on us in respect to medical records,” Horne said. He called the request for medical documentation “overbroad and an incredible invasion of privacy.”
“You had a document request that requested information regarding her illness and you didn’t respond to it,” the judge told Horne.
Asked why she could not produce any medical records, O’Brien testified Wednesday she previously called the Mayo Clinic to request records but was notified it would take at least a month to produce them.
“I think it goes to her forthrightness,” said Shelley after Wednesday’s trial. “You would think if you had the illness that Bridget had, there would be all sorts of evidence all over, and it would be fairly easy to get.”
O’Brien could have asked the judge for more time or provided documented evidence of her attempts to get records. She did neither, Shelley said.
The only document O’Brien produced as evidence was a letter from a Phoenix naturopath doctor. The letter summarized a history of Cancer treatment for O’Brien at another facility and stated O’Brien went to the naturopath doctor for alternative methods of care.
“What’s in there about cancer is hearsay,” Shelley said in court.
While on the stand, O’Brien testified she received her cancer diagnosis at the Mayo Clinic. Asked if she received chemotherapy, O’Brien answered, “yes.”
While on the stand, O’Brien was not asked about receiving a double mastectomy.
Asked if a doctor told O’Brien her Cancer diagnosis was potentially fatal, O’Brien said a social worker told her she should get her finances in order so that her children were taken care of in case she died.
Closing statements in the case are scheduled for later this month. The judge will likely make a ruling on the lawsuit in January.
“My opinion is that she lies frequently”
During Wednesday’s trial, Michael Koehler and a former contracted therapist for O’Brien testified about O’Brien’s alleged habit of being untruthful.
“My opinion is that she lies frequently,” Koehler said while on the witness stand.
During cross-examination, Horne appeared to question Koehler’s testimony by pointing out he had once pleaded guilty to credit card abuse and theft.
Trepanier also testified she witnessed O’Brien being untruthful.
During cross-examination, Horne demonstrated that Trepanier’s life partner also worked for O’Brien and quit after learning he would be fired.
“Just do the right thing”
Koehler and Trepanier say they’ve tried to move on from the stress caused by working at Head to Toe. For Koehler, it’s not easy. He filed a legal action against O’Brien for money she owed him.
Legal records show O’Brien has been ordered to pay Koehler $20,500 for unpaid wages and more than $50,000 in attorneys’ fees.
“I would say just do the right thing. Pay what you owe,” Koehler said.
O’Brien still owes several other therapists, including Daza Hernandez.
Hernandez is owed $10,000
Arson, dog theft and PPP funds
As 12News has also reported, in 2020, O’Brien obtained between 1-2 million dollars in COVID PPP loans. Records suggested O’Brien applied for the money to pay 20 full-time employees.
Koehler, who had access to O’Brien’s employment records at the time, said O’Brien employed no more than four people. O’Brien declined to provide answers to 12News about the forgivable loans. That same month O’Brien received the money, she purchased a nearly $2 million home near the Biltmore.
In February 2021, property and a building under financial distress owned by O’Brien were set on fire.
In April of the same year, O’Brien was caught on surveillance camera stealing a dog in front of its owner’s home in the Biltmore area.
O’Brien pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and agreed to pay fines and undergo a counseling program.
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