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Texas judge stuns with record health care fraud sentence

A recent sentence handed out by a federal judge in the Southern District of Texas has legal experts puzzled, news outlets report. The defendant is a 53-year-old Sugar Land mother of twin 7-year-old boys who had been found guilty of Medicare fraud in what has been described as a “relatively routine case.”

The sentence was anything but routine, however. Even though the defendant has stage IV metastatic breast cancer, she was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon to 75 years in prison — apparently a record sentence for health care fraud.

Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of less than half of what the judge imposed on cancer patient, Marie Neba. Her cancer has spread to her bones and lungs, doctors say.

When he asked the judge for a below-guideline sentence for his client, Neba’s defense attorney said at the sentencing hearing that she is dying. He noted then that the court had the power to “impose any sentence the court believes is appropriate.”

Obviously, the court decided against any degree of mercy.

A former federal prosecutor told the National Law Journal that he was not surprised that the defendant was sentenced to prison; it had seemed likely that she would be sentenced to several years in prison, despite her medical condition. “But how you get anything close to 75 years is beyond me,” said Patrick Cotter. “In 35 years, I have never heard of the government’s [prison term] recommendation being doubled by the judge, particularly when the government is asking for a tough sentence anyway.”

Gejaa Gobena, the former head of the DOJ Criminal Division’s Health Care Fraud Unit agreed, “We prosecuted hundreds of cases and never had a sentence approaching anywhere near this.”

The judge said as she administered the record sentence (it broke the previous record by 25 years) that she is “not a heartless person,” but that when a person is convicted as Neba was, of 8 counts of health care fraud, “this is what happens.”

The sentence is being appealed.