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Judge sets convicted man free to keep helping addicts recover

As a former pro football player, Stanford B. Rome knows how it goes: Breaking the rules results in a penalty.

But it doesn't always work that way, he learned Tuesday when sentenced for accepting nearly $270,000 in kickbacks for referring Medicare patients to a Pinellas County hospital.

He got no time. No restitution. Not even probation. Nothing.

"Are we running the risk of standing the process on its head?" U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday asked a prosecutor before not passing sentence.

"We are supposed to protect the community. Protecting the community of Valdosta, Ga., means letting this man come and go as he wants."

Merryday freed Rome after hearing testimony from residents of his hometown about Rome's work with recovering addicts.

Mary Jo Norman said the former Kansas City Chiefs receiver "came to the rescue" when her son, a recovering addict, spiraled out of control. Rome got the teen, who now counsels other adolescents, into treatment.

"I don't know what we would do without him," she said.

Mickey Freeman, sober for eight months after 17 years of drug and alcohol abuse, said he owes everything to Rome.

"I believe that God put Mr. Rome in my life because he has taught me so much about becoming a responsible and respectable person in society," Freeman said. "But we ain't nowhere near through. There's so many people in Valdosta, Ga., that are counting on his leadership."

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Rome, 43, could have been ordered to serve one year to 1{ years in prison.

He cooperated with investigators, leading them to several other participants in the nationwide Medicare fraud scheme, prosecutors said. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Montilla had recommended probation.

No-penalty sentences almost never happen in the federal system. Of 50,754 sentencings in 1998, only 177 resulted in no prison and no probation, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

"As a general rule, it is rare for a federal judge to not place a defendant on some kind of monitoring, such as probation or house arrest," Kenneth Nunn, a law professor at the University of Florida, told the Tampa Tribune.

Rome was arrested in August 1998 with three others after a four-year government crackdown on unlawful billing and patient brokering operations. The group was accused of defrauding the government and pocketing money in exchange for referring Medicare patients to The Manors Hospital in Tarpon Springs.

He pleaded guilty in December to one count of conspiracy. A co-defendant who did so earlier was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to pay his share of $5.7-million in restitution from a broader scheme.

In 1988, while addicted himself, Rome was shot in the head over a rock of crack cocaine. On Tuesday, he said he plans to continue his work at the two halfway houses he runs.

"I hope I can make a difference," he said. "Most people who get shot in the head don't live to talk about it. God gave me a second chance to do what I do."

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