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What does it take to run a Florida medical practice? Not a green card

Published Oct. 14, 2014

TAMPA — Ophthalmologist Ashish Sanon, born in India and trained in Canada, did well for himself among the cataracts, glaucoma checks and drooping eyelids of Citrus County.

In the past five years, he billed $5 million, enough to keep up homes both on Clearwater Beach and at the Black Diamond Ranch golf course, records show.

His tale has all the markings of an American success story, except — as the government reminded him this month — he isn't an American. Nor does he have a green card.

He's in federal court, answering to a criminal charge of visa fraud, which could be followed by a deportation battle for a man whose wife, children and parents all live in Florida. One child was born here, a family attorney said.

Sanon, a naturalized citizen of Canada, has remained in the United States since 1998 by steadily renewing temporary visas granted under the North American Free Trade Agreement to doctors from Canada or Mexico who teach or do research.

Federal authorities say he went too far, operating a full medical practice as a self-employed doctor for more than a decade.

Sanon admits to the activity in a signed plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, acknowledging that his visa authorized only research.

He is licensed by the Florida Board of Medicine. The practice, Nature Coast Eye Center, is in the Citrus County town of Beverly Hills. Sanon no longer sees patients, his attorney said.

The doctor did not respond to requests for comment.

Attorney Arturo Rios Jr. said the federal charge is the only negative mark against a man with good character who paid taxes on what he earned.

"All of the services were rendered," Rios said. "What was billed to Medicare and the government, all of those operations were done and he's fully licensed. It's a visa issue, a straight-forward immigration violation."

Sanon is scheduled to enter a formal guilty plea Oct. 27, with sentencing at a later date.

Visa fraud may, in extreme cases, be punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Rios said guidelines specific to Sanon's case suggest a term of zero to six months. He could also be required to forfeit some proceeds.

Public records show that he paid $1.3 million for the beach condo and $825,000 for the golf course home but both have lost value.

Immigration officials began investigating him after a tip in 2012. He initially asserted that his surgical activity was limited to tissue extraction for research.

But a former office manager said Sanon did cataract surgeries, eyelid surgeries and retinal laser treatments, the record states. A former technician said he saw 40 patients a day and there was no talk of research.

Rios, who also teaches immigration litigation at Stetson University, said obtaining a green card is more complicated than many people realize.

He said he thinks Sanon began to view the visa renewal paperwork as routine and was taking the path of least resistance.

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"He's ridiculously embarrassed about this," Rios said.

Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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