ATLANTA — The big rigs came from all corners of the country.
They came from Arizona, from Maine, from Washington. By the thousands, they pulled into the Petro Stopping Center, a 24-hour truck stop off Interstate 285 here in Atlanta. There, truckers could find coffee and CB radios, tires and a tattoo shop. There’s even a trucker’s chapel inside an old shipping container.
The truck stop was also where they could find Dr. Tony.
A licensed chiropractor, Anthony Lefteris got federally certified in 2014 to conduct the medical exams that truckers must pass to get their commercial driver’s license.
Lefteris, who worked alone, proved prolific. He could complete nearly as many exams in an hour as a typical federally certified examiner did in a month. In less than three years, he issued more than 6,500 certificates of good health to truckers from 43 states.
There was just one problem, prosecutors say: He didn’t actually do the full medical exam that is required by federal law.
Truckers aren’t exactly the healthiest Americans — a 2010 study found more than half of them smoke cigarettes, and they’re twice as likely as other working adults to be morbidly obese. The required medical exam is supposed to weed out those with hearing or vision problems, uncontrolled diabetes or high blood pressure, substance abuse issues, or other conditions that could make them a danger on the road.
Lefteris simply did not do many of those tests, court filings allege.
It was an anonymous tip from a driver that ultimately led to Lefteris’s arrest last month. He now faces criminal charges of falsifying documents filed with a federal agency. If convicted on all charges, he could face up to 75 years in prison.
Lefteris, 71, has denied any wrongdoing. Neither he nor his lawyers responded to repeated requests for comment.
But prosecutors say that word of his willingness to falsify medical exams spread faster than a truck racing downhill with no brakes, and drivers who might otherwise have failed their physicals made a point of stopping by his office.
“There’s no reason for any driver in perfect health to go this route,” John Horn, the US attorney for the northern district of Georgia, told STAT. “[Lefteris was] taking the underlying risk of a danger on the road, and magnifying it, putting the patient or the public’s life at risk.”
A mission to keep motorists safe
One of the Department of Transportation’s central missions is to keep the nation’s roads and highways safe.
A slew of new commercial safety measures — like bans on texting and handheld cellphone use — have helped lower the number of US highway fatalities by a fifth since 2005. As part of this broader safety push, the DOT in 2014 launched a national registry of certified medical examiners. Ray LaHood, the former transportation secretary, said the idea was to identify health care professionals who specialized in this exam and understood “all of the demands required to operate large trucks and passenger buses safely.”
There are now more than 50,000 certified medical examiners in the registry, according to Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the DOT agency responsible for trucking regulations. The registry includes doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and other medical practitioners.
“The National Registry program will help reduce the occurrence of crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving large trucks and buses by making sure you are physically and mentally able to perform your job safely,” one FMCSA brochure reads.
FMCSA says the medical exam, which is supposed to take 25 minutes to complete, must include hearing and vision tests, a urine drug screening, and a review of a driver’s medical history. Examiners must discern whether truckers have medical conditions making them ineligible for a license — a list that includes diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory dysfunction, high blood pressure, and psychiatric disorder, among others.
DeBruyne said FMCSA doesn’t track the number of medical practitioners who have lost exam privileges. But at least two — a small-town Missouri chiropractor who falsified her certificates and a New York internist who let interns forge his name on forms — last year pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
Swift exams and missing urine strips
The investigation into “Dr. Tony” started with one of his patients.
On March 6, 2015, a driver known as C.D. — that’s how prosecutors refer to him in court filings — went to Lefteris’s office to obtain a medical certificate, according to a signed affidavit from Tammie Moore, a veteran special agent for the DOT inspector general’s office.
Lefteris asked if C.D. had any medical issues. C.D. replied he had high blood pressure — one of the conditions that could make truckers ineligible for a commercial driver’s license. Lefteris didn’t probe further. He asked some more questions but performed no actual tests, not even a pulse check, before handing C.D. a medical certificate.
The shoddy exam prompted C.D. to report his experience to Georgia Department of Public Safety compliance officers.
Eighteen months later, three of their undercover officers visited Lefteris’s office at the Petro Stopping Center. The chiropractor failed to give two of the officers the full array of tests — neither got urine or hearing tests, for example — yet each walked out with medical certificates in 10 minutes or less. Lefteris sent the third officer, who acknowledged he was diabetic, to get additional tests elsewhere. Ultimately, the third officer would receive his medical certificate during a follow-up visit.
The court documents don’t say how much Lefteris charged for his exams — or how much he earned by issuing an average of 360 certificates a month. (On average, federally certified examiners do just 14 a month.)
What is clear: Following the undercover operation, DOT agents paid a visit to the truck stop. The agents sat outside Lefteris’s office for an hour on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016. They observed 12 people enter his office. Eight left with medical certificates. Only three urine strips were found in the bathroom’s trash.
When agents entered the office, Lefteris explained the mismatch between the number of exams he’d allegedly conducted and the number of certificates he’d given out by saying he had just taken out the trash. What he didn’t know: The agents had been outside, watching. He hadn’t taken out the trash.
Three weeks later, they returned to take Lefteris into custody.
Thousands of truckers in the lurch
The day after his arrest, FMCSA removed Lefteris from its national registry and issued a public notice announcing it would revoke thousands of medical certificates issued by the chiropractor.
In late December, DeBruyne said the agency began sending letters to drivers who had gotten their medical exams from “Dr. Tony.” The letter’s subject line read, “URGENT NOTIFICATION: YOUR MEDICAL EXAMINER’S CERTIFICATE WILL BE VOIDED,” and said each driver had 30 days to be reexamined or else lose their commercial driver’s license.
“You must provide the medical examiner with complete and correct information regarding your health history and current health status,” the letter said.
Lefteris, who is free on $20,000 bond, has agreed to not conduct DOT medical examinations as a condition of his release.
However, his chiropractic license still remains active; it was renewed last November, shortly before his arrest, according to an online database maintained by the Georgia secretary of state. Candice Broce, a spokesperson for the office, said it’s rare for the state to suspend a professional license after criminal charges are filed; such a move usually comes only after a conviction.
Lefteris is clearly hoping to avoid that fate.
He’s hired prominent criminal defense attorney Don Samuel, known best for getting high-profile clients like NFL stars Ray Lewis and Ben Roethlisberger acquitted. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for Tuesday.
On a rainy Saturday in January, truckers at the Petro Stopping Center stretched their legs and walked their dogs in a sprawling, fenced-off lot accessible only to those with commercial driver’s licenses. They can still find an abundance of amenities to make the long haul a little easier. But Lefteris seems to be long gone. A station clerk said she didn’t know where the chiropractor went. The manager said she’d never heard of him.
Lefteris, for his part, recently changed his voicemail.
“This is Dr. Tony,” it now says. “The office will be temporarily closed until further notice.”