By Susan Redden
Rita Hunter, former Jasper County public administrator, was sentenced Thursday to a year and a day in federal prison after pleading guilty to document fraud that illegally obtained federal benefits on behalf of wards of her office.
U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple imposed the sentence in U.S. District Court and told Hunter to report Aug. 1 for incarceration at a prison that has yet to be determined. Whipple said he wants Hunter to be available to cooperate in the return of $120,000 that he said was fraudulently taken from federal agencies.
He chastised the former elected official for the false reporting, which he noted took place over an extended period.
“Your conduct was very egregious,” he told Hunter. “You took an oath to uphold the law, and you continually and repeatedly filed false reports. This is an operation you had going on for three years.”
Ian Lewis, who served as public defender for Hunter, argued that his client should not go to prison but should be placed on five years of probation.
“She’s 60 years old, and she suffers from heart disease and stenosis,” he said. “She’s on disability.”
Lewis said Hunter never before had been charged with even a minor crime and that what took place over the three-year period was “a marked deviation from her otherwise clean life.”
He also argued that Hunter did not benefit personally from money received by her office based on the false claims.
The judge said that did not excuse the fact that the false claims generated $120,000 in unlawful Medicaid payments. He ordered that amount to be paid as restitution by Hunter and the insurance company that held her bond while she was public administrator.
“That ought to be a loss against the defendant,” Whipple said. “I’m ordering the restitution, and if the bonding company wants to pursue her personally, they can.”
Hunter’s bond was $100,000. The judge “attached the bond” as part of the sentence, and said Hunter and the bonding company would be liable for the restitution, which then would reimburse the agencies whose funds were unlawfully taken.
He directed Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Eggert to pursue recovery of the funds under the bond, and told Hunter that she would be expected to cooperate and testify if the matter went to court.
“This is an unusual case,” Whipple said. “It’s very upsetting to see an elected official act as you have acted.”
Hunter did not respond beyond “no, your honor” when Whipple asked her if she had anything to say before he pronounced sentence. She also said she had no complaints about the representation she had received from her public defender.
Before the hearing, Hunter said she would make no comments to the Globe, saying she had been mischaracterized in earlier coverage. The Globe’s stories included analyses of fees assessed by the administrator’s office and charged against wards’ estates. Comparisons showed that funds generated by the office and turned over to Jasper County were far larger than those generated under the previous public administrator or by other public administrator offices of similar size.
Whipple initially sentenced Hunter to a year in prison, but he agreed with a request from Lewis to make the sentence a day longer. That entitles her to be released after she serves 85 percent of the sentence, based on her good behavior.
The judge also sentenced Hunter to three years of probation after prison. While she is on probation and before she surrenders for incarceration, Whipple said, she is to observe a curfew, abstain from alcohol and allow searches of her home by federal authorities.
Angie Casavecchia, the current Jasper County public administrator, attended the hearing and said after the verdict that she believes it “will bring some closure for our office and for the wards.”
“A lot of clients that Rita had that are still under guardianship wanted to know that some justice would be served,” she said. “Now, they can see that.”
Hunter’s wards included Emma France, then 95, of Carthage, who was made a ward in June 2007 after a state agency cited losses from lottery scams. Delores Forste, France’s daughter, took her home to Needles, Calif., because France objected to being in county custody. Forste then was arrested on kidnapping charges and returned to Jasper County.
The local probate court later set aside France’s guardianship, ruling that her rights were violated because relatives were not notified of the county’s plans and because France was not allowed to attend the guardianship hearing. Kidnapping charges against Forste and her husband, Steve, were deferred, then dropped. The family filed a lawsuit against Hunter, but a Jasper County jury found in favor of the former administrator.
Delores Forste on Thursday said the sentence “was a long time coming.”
“This is some justice, though I feel sorry for her family, because they’ll suffer too,” said Forste, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz. “But she hurt a lot of people.”
The document fraud charge to which Hunter pleaded guilty in November was among 12 counts initially listed in a federal indictment handed up Dec. 14, 2011. She was accused of directing her employees to submit materially false Medicaid applications for wards under the custody of the 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.
Other charges, including health care fraud, theft of government property, document fraud, Social Security fraud and Medicaid fraud, were dismissed Thursday at the request of the prosecution and as a result of a plea agreement reached earlier.
Hunter was public administrator from January 2005 through December 2008.
THE INVESTIGATION resulting in charges against Rita Hunter involved 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.