Court Digest

Couple charged in $5.8 million COVID relief fraud

DAVENPORT, Fla. (AP) — A Florida couple accused of COVID relief fraud filed dozens of false loan applications that totaled nearly $6 million, prosecutors said.

Julio Lugo, 44, and Rosenide Venant, 37, used some of the $5.8 million to pay off a luxury vehicle, and spent over $62,000 at casinos, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.

Lugo also posted a Facebook video showing “a hotel room littered with $100 bills and at least $5,000 in merchandise from Louis Vuitton,” officials said in a news release on Friday. The money was obtained illegally from the Small Business Administration.

Beginning in March 2020, prosecutors said Lugo and Venant submitted at least 70 fraudulent loan applications seeking funds from the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, listing shell companies that they or their relatives set up.

They are each charged with with conspiracy and making false statements to a financial institution, the newspaper reported. Lugo faces a maximum penalty of 45 years in federal prison if convicted, while Venant faces up to 35 years in prison.

Court records did not list lawyers for Lugo or Venant.

The FBI and the Internal Revenue Service’s Tampa Field Office investigated the case, according to the release.

West Virginia
Man sentenced for trying to help wife fake death

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia man accused of helping his wife try to fake her death to avoid being sentenced for health care fraud has been sentenced to eight months in prison.

Rodney Wheeler of Beckley was sentenced Monday in Charleston federal court after pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Prosecutors said Wheeler and his wife, Julie M. Wheeler, came up with a plan to keep her out of prison.

Rodney Wheeler told authorities in a phone call last May 31 that she had fallen from an overlook at the New River Gorge, prompting a massive search. He repeatedly gave false statements to state and federal investigators, prosecutors said.

State Police later found Julie Wheeler hiding in her home.

She was sentenced last June to three years and six months for fraud related to overbilling. In February she received an additional year for conspiring to obstruct justice and will serve the sentences consecutively.

Court upholds firing of ex-Seattle cop who punched person

SEATTLE (AP) — The state Court of Appeals has upheld the termination of a former Seattle Police Officer who was fired for punching a handcuffed person seven years ago.

The appeals court upheld a lower-court decision that overturned a ruling by a Disciplinary Review Board to reinstate Adley Shepherd with a 15-day unpaid suspension for punching the intoxicated suspect so hard he fractured the orbit of her eye, The Seattle Times reported.

Former Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Shepherd but he appealed with the support of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild.

The appeals court wrote in a 46-page opinion issued Monday that the disciplinary board’s “decision reinstating Shepherd is so lenient it violates the explicit, well-defined, and dominant public policy against the excessive use of force in policing.”

Shepherd and two other officers arrested a combative Miyekko Durden-Bosley, 23, on suspicion of domestic violence on June 22, 2014. As Shepherd attempted to place her, handcuffed, into his patrol car, Durden-Bosley struggled and kicked, striking the officer in the head. Shepherd then punching her. The incident was captured on the vehicle’s dash camera.

Shepherd has said that he was following policy and that other officers have received more lenient discipline for similar uses of excessive or unnecessary force. He appealed his termination to the disciplinary review board, which consisted of a representative from the police union, a representative of the city and a mediator, identified in court papers as Jane Wilkinson.

In a tiebreaker vote, Wilkinson concluded that, while Shepherd violated policy and training, his indiscretion was not a firing offense. The review board then reduced the discipline.

Durden-Bosley settled a civil-rights lawsuit against Seattle for $195,000.

The Seattle City Attorney’s Office appealed the disciplinary board’s decision to superior court, which sided with O’Toole and reinstated Shepherd’s termination. Monday’s ruling upholds that ruling.

Multiple messages left with Shepherd on Monday from the newspaper seeking comment on the ruling were not returned. Telephone and email messages sent to police union president Mike Solan also were not returned. It was not clear whether Shepherd will appeal.

City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose office represented O’Toole’s and the city’s efforts to fire Shepherd, said he will defend the case to the Washington Supreme Court if necessary.

3M will pay Bemidji $12.5 million to help treat water

BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) — The city of Bemidji has reached a settlement with 3M to help pay for treating contamination in the community’s water supply.

3M will pay $12.5 million toward building and operating a new treatment facility to remove chemicals known as PFAS, which the company manufactured for use as firefighting foam.

The city found elevated levels of PFAS in its wells in 2016 and linked the source of the contamination to firefighting foam used during training at the regional airport, which is located near the wells, Minnesota Public Radio News  reported.

Some PFAS have been linked to health problems including low birth weight, kidney and thyroid issues and some cancers.

The agreement was a “long time coming,” city manager Nate Mathews said. He said there was a lot of anxiety in the community when the PFAS were discovered.

“I think people in Bemidji are feeling a good sense of relief that we addressed the issue,” Mathews said. “It was a big, complicated project and a long, long process, and it’s good to get some conclusion to that.”

The first phase of the $16 million treatment project is expected to be online within the next couple of weeks, Mathews said.

Construction on the second phase, which will allow the city to treat more water, will start this summer or fall and take about two years to complete.

Judge orders state to remove men from sex offender registry

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge ruled Monday that Tennessee’s sex offender registration act is unconstitutional, at least as it was applied retroactively to two offenders.

The ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee affects only the two men who sued, identified in court documents as John Doe #1 and John Doe #2.

“I think the ruling, while it is narrowly tailored to our clients, does open the door to the possibility of a class action,” attorney Ed Yarbrough said in an interview.

U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson had already ruled in February that parts of the law violated the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents people from being punished by a law passed after their crime was committed. On Monday, he ordered the state to stop enforcing any part of the law against the two plaintiffs and to remove their names from the sex offender registry.

According to court records, John Doe #1 was convicted in 1994 of two counts of attempted aggravated sexual battery, for which he received a sentence of five years’ probation. John Doe #2 was convicted in 2000 of three counts of sexual battery committed against a child 12 years or younger and was sentenced to six years of probation.

Under the Tennessee Sexual Offender and Violent Sexual Offender Registration Verification and Tracking Act of 2004, both were required to register as sex offenders with the state and regularly report in person to law enforcement. They also faced restrictions on where they could live and work, among other things.

The plaintiffs claimed they were forced to move out of their own homes, lost jobs and were prevented from spending time with their children.

Man gets 50 years for hit-and-run that killed local college professor

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A Des Moines man police accused of intentionally running over and killing a local college instructor has been sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Jason Sassman, 50, was sentenced Monday after being convicted in February of second-degree murder in the April 5, 2020, death of 38-year-old Lauren Rice, television station KCCI reported.

Police have said Sassman was using meth when he intentionally ran over Rice as she walked her dog, which also died in the incident. Rice was an instructor at Des Moines Area Community.

Sassman told investigators he ran down Rice because he believed she was a criminal about to kill someone, police said.

Prosecutors charged  Sassman with first-degree murder in the case, but a jury found him guilty of the lesser second-degree murder count. The jury acquitted him of a second count of animal abuse.

DA: Officer justified in shooting armed man in basement

CATASAUQUA, Pa. (AP) — A prosecutor has ruled that a police officer was justified in shooting and killing an armed man in the basement of an eastern Pennsylvania home earlier this year.

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin said Tuesday the officer had a “clearly reasonable” belief that deadly force was needed to protect himself and other officers from death or serious injury when he opened fire on 27-year-old Ryan Shirey.

Authorities said Shirey and his father were in the Catasauqua home on Feb. 19 along with his ex-girlfriend, who is a caretaker for Shirey’s mother. The ex-girlfriend called police during an argument the older man described as “heated,” Martin said earlier.

State police said three Catasauqua officers responded and Shirey fled to the basement and got a revolver. Authorities said he was ordered to put down the gun but didn’t comply, after which he was shot.

Martin said the officers weren’t told prior to going down to the basement that there was a pistol there Shirey could access. He said the gun turned out to be unloaded, but officers had no way of knowing that and there was nothing to suggest that Shirey knew that, either.

Martin said he ruled the shooting justified after an extensive review of investigative reports, witness statements and body camera video.

After the shooting, Jeff Purdon, speaking for the Shirey family, said the family was devastated by the loss and didn’t believe Shirey was intent on hurting anyone. Purdon said Shirey battled mental health issues throughout his life and called him “a victim of a system that failed him.”

Cities: Trump should pay legal bills for challenge

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The cities of Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine are asking a federal judge to make former President Donald Trump pay more than $42,000 in legal fees in a case he brought challenging Wisconsin’s presidential election results.

The request for legal fees comes just days after Gov. Tony Evers asked a court to award the state  more than $145,000 in legal fees from Trump related to the same lawsuit, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on Monday.

Trump lost to President Joe Biden by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin.

Trump had sought to have the Republican-controlled Legislature decide how to award the state’s 10 electoral votes instead of voters, arguing that long-standing voting practices in Wisconsin were improper.

U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig said letting state lawmakers decide the outcome of the election would have resulted in “probably the most remarkable ruling in the history of this court or the federal judiciary.” Ludwig, who was put on the bench by Trump, ruled against him in December.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case in March.

“The objective bad faith of plaintiff’s counsel in filing and litigating this action is evidenced by the scope of the relief sought and their relentless pursuit of it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, well after the election results in Wisconsin had been determined and certified,” wrote Daniel Lenz, attorney for the cities. “In essence, plaintiff’s counsel sought to disenfranchise every Wisconsin voter.”