By Susan Redden
Rita Hunter, former Jasper County public administrator, is to be sentenced today in federal court in Springfield.
Hunter, who held office from January 2005 through December 2008, pleaded guilty last November to document fraud, a charge related to illegal obtaining of federal benefits.
U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple has ordered the defense and prosecution at today’s sentencing hearing to be prepared to present evidence concerning Hunter’s compliance with Missouri statutes describing the duties and responsibilities of a public administrator.
The document fraud charge to which Hunter pleaded guilty was among 12 counts listed in a federal indictment handed up Dec. 14, 2011. The guilty plea was part of an agreement that called for the other 11 charges to be dropped, according to a statement issued by a federal prosecutor at the time of the plea.
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 of restitution.
Hunter has been represented in the case by a court-appointed public defender. Hunter on Wednesday did not return a message left on her cellphone.
According to a release from the court at the time of the plea, 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 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 to qualify for Medicaid benefits, when Hunter knew the ward was not eligible.
The federal grand jury’s initial 12-count indictment included charges of health care fraud, theft of government property, document fraud, Social Security fraud and Medicaid fraud in connection with the operation of Hunter’s office when she was public administrator. The indictment alleged that financial misdeeds started as early as April 2005, four months after the start of her term.
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.
RITA HUNTER took all the wards’ files from the public administrator’s office at the end of her tenure, then later turned them over to county officials. Then, the files became the subject of a state investigation into the operation of the administrator’s office. The probe later was taken over by federal authorities.