By Susan Redden
Rita Hunter, former Jasper County public administrator, pleaded guilty to document fraud on Tuesday in federal court in Springfield.
Hunter, 60, of rural Joplin, entered a plea to the charge related to illegally obtaining federal benefits. The charge was part of a 12-count federal indictment handed up Dec. 14, 2011. Hunter, who served a single term as public administrator ending in December 2008, pleaded guilty to the one count in an agreement that calls for the other 11 to be dropped, according to a statement issued by a federal prosecutor.
By pleading guilty, Hunter admitted to a scheme involving a total fraud of $70,000 to $120,000, according to a release from the federal court. She directed her employees to submit materially false Medicaid applications for wards under the custody of the public administrator’s office. The applications falsely stated that the wards had assets below the $1,000 threshold to be eligible to receive Medicaid benefits, when in fact the wards had assets of more than $1,000.
Under federal statutes, Hunter is subject to a sentence of up to five years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $250,000 and an order or restitution.
Hunter was represented in the case by Ian Lewis, a court-appointed public defender. The Globe’s attempts to reach him Tuesday were unsuccessful, and a message left on Hunter’s cellphone was not returned.
A federal grand jury initially handed up a 12-count indictment against Hunter, including federal charges of health care fraud, theft of government property, document fraud, Social Security fraud and Medicaid fraud, in connection with the operation of her office when she was public administrator from January 2005 through December 2008. The indictment alleged that financial misdeeds started as early as April 2005, four months after the start of her term.
Though the guilty plea was to a single count, “the totality of her conduct does not evaporate as a result of that,” said Don Ledford, a spokesman for David Ketchmark, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri.
“At her sentencing hearing, the court will take into account all of her conduct, in terms of the time of the sentence and the amount of restitution,” he said.
The original indictment alleged that Hunter collected nearly $200,000 to which her office was not entitled. That came either by falsifying reports to apply for Medicaid benefits to which wards were not entitled, or by collecting fees from what wards were receiving from Social Security, without authorization and without reporting to the federal agency.
According to Tuesday’s press release, Hunter specifically pleaded guilty to directing her staff to prepare a fraudulent Medicaid eligibility statement for a ward identified in the court filing as T.V. Hunter knew that the statement submitted to Missouri HealthNet on Aug. 6, 2008, contained false information. The written statement on the document indicated that the ward had a total bank account balance of $827, when in fact the ward had funds totaling $6,919. The false statement was made to ensure that the ward would meet the monetary threshold of no more than $1,000 imposed by Medicaid, and was material to Medicaid’s determination that T.V. was eligible for Medicaid benefits, the release stated.
Hunter caused the statement to be stamped with her signature verifying that it was true, when in fact it was false. Hunter instructed her employees to fabricate T.V.’s bank statement to ensure that T.V. would qualify for Medicaid benefits, when she was, in fact, not eligible.
A sentencing hearing for Hunter will be scheduled after the completion of a pre-sentence investigation by the U.S. Probation Office.
THE CASE WAS INVESTIGATED by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Social Security Administration, the FBI, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Missouri Department of Social Services Legal Investigation Section.