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Miami woman doing 35 years in prison for bilking Medicare gets sentence commuted by Trump

Judith Negron was sent to prison for aiding in a $200 million fraud case in what was then the country’s biggest mental health billing racket.

A Hialeah woman convicted in a massive Medicare fraud scheme a decade ago had her 35-year prison sentence commuted Tuesday by President Donald Trump as he announced 11 pardons and commutations in high-profile cases.

Judith Negron, now 48 years old, was sent to prison for aiding in a $200 million fraud case in what was then the country’s biggest mental health billing racket.

Negron was the only defendant in the case to refuse a plea deal and go to trial. She was convicted by a jury in August 2011 on 24 counts of conspiracy, fraud, paying kickbacks and money laundering in collaboration with the owners of a Miami-based company.

Related: Trump pardons ex-49ers owner, Hillsborough County resident Edward DeBartolo Jr.

The scheme centered around American Therapeutic Corp., a seven-clinic chain that billed Medicare for group mental-health sessions that were either unnecessary or not provided to patients. The group’s patients, meanwhile, could not feed themselves or control their own bodily waste, according to prosecutors’ filings. Many lacked the mental capacity to respond to counseling and simply stared at walls or watched TV instead, raising questions about whether they were eligible for treatment.

Throughout the prosecution, Negron, who was vice president of a subsidiary of the company, maintained she was unaware of the billing scheme to fleece the taxpayer-funded Medicare program.

Negron, who was a first-time offender when she was sentenced, had run out of options when it came to appealing her sentence, but her family never gave up, according to Bill Norris, her appellate attorney.

“She has steadfastly insisted on her own integrity,” Norris said. “Integrity is a little more complicated than innocence or guilt.”

Yamila Cruz-Estrada, Negron’s sister, told the Herald that she was home alone when she received a phone call with news of the commutation.

“I think the neighbors probably heard me scream,” Cruz-Estrada said. “We are just so excited. We’re so happy. We’re so grateful to President Trump for granting her this.”

She said her sister coped with her time in prison trying to help others around her, painting murals and teaching classes.

Two of Negron’s co-defendants, American Therapeutic co-owners Lawrence S. Duran and Marianella Valera, were also hit with heavy sentences in the case — 50 years and 35 years, respectively. At the time, they were the longest-ever terms for Medicare fraud offenses. Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of Florida handled the case and U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King meted out the sentences.

Negron ran MedLink Professional Management Group, which Justice Department prosecutor Jennifer Saulino said was set up solely to launder $83 million in Medicare payments to American Therapeutic’s owners, employees and others who participated in the scheme over the past decade.

At least one other Miami defendant is hoping to catch the attention of President Trump as he considers more commutations. Rich Mendez, a former Orlando car salesman turned Miami Latin music mogul, recently started serving a five-year sentence for his role in a time-share scam from over a decade ago. He has seen his story picked up on conservative airwaves by the likes of TV host John Cardillo of the cable network Newsmax as an example of “rogue DOJ prosecutors destroying lives.”

Negron’s 35-year sentence as a nonviolent first-time offender has drawn criticism from legal scholars who advocate for criminal justice reform. Shon Hopwood, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said the sentence was “ridiculously long.”

“She was originally given a 35-year sentence, but that didn’t stop her from working towards rehabilitation while serving her time,” Hopwood told the Herald. “She has earned a second chance and I’m delighted that President Trump gave it to her.”

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