Court Digest

State Supreme Court orders expungement fees waived

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that low-income people should not have to pay fees to have old felony convictions cleared from their backgrounds.

The case was brought by Frederick Jones of Jefferson County. He had asked to have a felony theft conviction from 1998 expunged from court records, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. The state previously charged $340 in various fees.

Lower courts denied Jones when he motioned to proceed in forma pauperis, meaning without the fees, saying he couldn’t afford them. The state supreme court ruled that Jones is entitled to file a felony expungement application for free under Kentucky’s in forma pauperis statute.

“We can identify no other situation in our commonwealth where a judge renders a judgment that a litigant is entitled to a benefit under the law, but that litigant cannot obtain the benefit of that judgment unless and until he pays a fee,” Justice Michelle Keller of Covington wrote for the unanimous court decision.

According to WDRB-TV, the ruling means that low-income people who were convicted of traffic, misdemeanor and some non-violent felony cases can have those records erased without paying a $50 filing fee, a $40 certificate of eligibility fee and $250 expungement cost.

“It’s extremely important,” Jones’ attorney Michael Abate argued before the high court. “There are hundreds of thousands of people in this state who have been disenfranchised by a felony conviction.”

Abate argued that having old criminal convictions expunged could help hundreds of state residents with getting jobs, and would allow them to vote and also participate in their kids’ school activities, along with other benefits.

Jones’ case will now be sent back to Jefferson Circuit Court for expungement, WDRB-TV reported.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron argued in court that expungement of a case was not a constitutional right and fees were required under state law.

According to WDRB-TV, legislators have proposed waiving the fees in past years as old convictions and even unproven charges can still show up on employer background checks. All of these proposals have fallen flat.

“We recognize the hardship our holding may place on the agencies who benefit from the expungement fee,” Justice Keller wrote. “However, we cannot allow that potential hardship to color our analysis of the statutes at issue. We merely interpret the statutes as enacted by the General Assembly.”

A conviction is eligible to be expunged five years after any jail or probation sentence is served or restitution is paid. People are not allowed to expunge multiple felony cases.

Once a case is expunged, all records are sealed and no longer accessible by the public or government officials. If asked about an expunged case, court clerks are required to say it doesn’t exist.

Man pleads to pointing lasers at planes

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A Mississippi man has pleaded guilty to pointing a green laser at FedEx airplanes flying into Memphis International Airport in Tennessee, federal prosecutors said.

Eugene Conrad of Michigan City, Mississippi, faces up to five years in prison after he pleaded guilty Wednesday to aiming a laser pointer at aircraft, the U.S. attorney’s office said. His sentencing is scheduled for March 10.

The Federal Aviation Administration told the FBI in July that airplanes flying into the busy airport from the east were being hit in the cockpit and cabin by a green laser coming from Hardeman County in Tennessee and Benton County in Mississippi.

Officials reported 49 strikes, mainly on FedEx airplanes, from January to July, prosecutors said.

A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation airplane with a camera attached reported laser strikes against it the night of Aug. 11, prosecutors said.

Agents identified the origin of the lasers and found Conrad, 52, in front of a home in Benton County. They found a green laser pointer in an outdoor trash can.

Ex-doctor convicted in weight-loss insurance scam

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A former Southern California doctor was convicted Thursday of falsely billing military and private insurers $355 million for weight-loss surgeries.

Julian Omidi, 53, of West Hollywood and his Beverly Hills-based company, Surgery Center Management LLC, were convicted by a federal jury of three dozen counts of wire and mail fraud, money laundering, conspiracy and making false statements related to health care matters, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.

A second physician, Dr. Mirali Zarrabi, 59, of Beverly Hills, was acquitted of all charges, prosecutors said.

Omidi and his relatives controlled the now-defunct 1-800-GET-THIN business that promoted and performed lap-band surgeries, prosecutors said.

Between 2010 and 2016, Omidi convinced insurers to pre-approve the surgeries by having prospective patients undergo sleep studies to determine if they had sleep apnea, a “co-morbidity” that might justify the procedure, prosecutors alleged.

Omidi sometimes had his employees falsify the study results and other information, including the patients’ weights, prosecutors said.

Private insurance companies and Tricare, a health program for members of the military were billed for an estimated $355 million and paid out some $70 million for the lap-band procedures and sleep studies, prosecutors said.

The defense blamed the fraud on a company manager, Charles Klasky, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 2017, testified for the prosecution and awaits sentencing.

Omidi could face up to 20 years in federal prison when he is sentenced in April.

Omidi’s state medical license was revoked in 2009. In 2014, the government seized more than $110 million in funds and securities from accounts held by Omidi and others allegedly involved in the scheme.

The government is seeking forfeiture of some or all those funds, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

2 Florida men guilty of running $35M COVID-19 fraud scheme

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Two South Florida men have pleaded guilty in Ohio to leading a nationwide scheme to fraudulently obtain more than $35 million in COVID-19 relief loans.

James Stote, 55, of Hollywood, Florida, and Phillip Augustin, 52, of Coral Springs, Florida, pleaded guilty Tuesday in Akron, Ohio, federal court to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to court records. They each face up to 20 years in prison.

“While many businesses in our communities relied upon relief funds to keep their doors open and employees paid, these defendants profited off a scheme that stole millions of taxpayer dollars intended for struggling businesses and spent it lavishly on themselves,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Baeppler for the Northern District of Ohio said in a statement.

According to court documents, Stote and Augustin led a group that fraudulently obtained Paycheck Protection Program loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Authorities say they initially obtained a fraudulent loan for Augustin’s company, Clear Vision Music Group LLC, using falsified documents. After that, they immediately began working to obtain larger PPP loans for themselves and their associates, the documents added.

Stote and Augustin recruited additional PPP loan applicants and prepared and submitted fraudulent loan applications for them in exchange for a share of the loan proceeds, prosecutors said. The applications they submitted for all of the loans in the scheme relied on fake payroll numbers, falsified IRS forms and phony bank statements. Prosecutors said they submitted or facilitated at least 79 fraudulent loan applications worth at least $35 million and planned to submit more.

As part of the same scheme, Diamond Smith, 37, of Miramar, Florida, was sentenced Thursday to one year and eight months after pleading guilty in August in South Florida to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Smith, a recording artist, obtained two PPP loans, for $426,717 and $708,065, and paid more than $250,000 to Stote and Augustin as kickbacks for their assistance in preparing and submitting the fraudulent loan applications, officials said.

A total of 25 people have been charged in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina for their participation in this scheme, with 20 convictions, so far, according to authorities.

The Paycheck Protection Program represents billions of dollars in forgivable small business loans for Americans struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which became federal law in March 2020.

Man in fight over barking dogs found guilty of murder

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) — A man has been convicted of fatally stabbing his neighbor at a southeast Washington motel in a fight over barking dogs.

Earnace Beasley Jr. denied stabbing William Bepler, 38, during the May 9, 2020, confrontation. But jurors in Beasley’s Benton County Superior Court trial didn’t believe him, returning a guilty verdict Wednesday for first-degree murder during a burglary, The Tri-City Herald reported.

The jury also found that Beasley, 67, was armed with a deadly weapon during the crime, which will lead to additional prison time. He’s being held without bail pending sentencing set for January.

The jury deliberated over two days after the trial, including jury selection, lasted about a week.

Beasley was in his motel room at the Economy Inn in Richland when Bepler’s girlfriend yelled at Beasley’s chihuahua-type dogs to stop barking. Both men were residents there. Beasley reportedly yelled back at her.

Bepler came out to yell at Beasley, returned to his room for a spatula and went to hit Beasley in the face, court documents said.

Prosecutors said Beasley then got a pocket knife, forced his way into Bepler’s room, climbed on him and hit him, according to court documents.

Beasley told Richland police he did not have a knife and that he “blacked out,” documents said.

Bepler had emergency surgery for a stab wounds but later died.

Man gets 5 years for setting fires behind store

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man has been sentenced to five years in prison for setting fires behind the same Tampa Bay-area grocery store three days in a row starting on Christmas last year.

Robert Timon Lovett, 50, of Bradenton, was sentenced Monday in Tampa federal court, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to arson in September.

According to court documents, Lovett started fires behind a Publix grocery store in Parrish on Dec. 25, 26 and 27 of last year. On the second and third days, Lovett actually entered the store and purchased the lighter fluid he used to start the fires, both of which he set while the store was open for business, prosecutors said. The fire he set on Dec. 26 caused significant heat damage to the back of the store.

Law enforcement officers apprehended Lovett on Dec. 28, when he returned to the same Publix and again purchased lighter fluid, officials said. Lovett admitted to investigators that he started the fires.

Defense attorney Kathleen Sweeney said in a sentencing memo that Lovett had suffered from lifelong drug abuse and depression. Lovett lost his 10-year-old son to a bacterial infection in 2019, prompting a downward spiral, Sweeney said.

At some point, Lovett began writing letters to his dead son but later decided to burn them, Sweeney wrote. The attorney said Lovett had been high on methamphetamine and various pills for several days when he chose to burn the letters behind the Publix because he didn’t think the concrete building was at risk of catching fire.