Jury enters deliberations in fraud trial for sheriff's sergeant

Ten counts dropped on third day of trial

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 8/2/18

A sergeant of the Taos County Sheriff’s Office who was charged with Medicaid fraud in 2017 for allegedly lying about hours spent caring for an elderly neighbor appeared for a jury trial in 8th …

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Jury enters deliberations in fraud trial for sheriff's sergeant

Ten counts dropped on third day of trial

Posted

Updated Aug. 2 at 5 p.m.

After a three-day trial, a Taos jury will return to 8th Judicial District Court Friday morning (Aug. 3) to resume deliberating a Medicaid fraud case filed against a Taos County Sheriff's sergeant.

On Thursday (Aug. 2), presiding Judge Sarah Backus dismissed 10 counts of perjury in a 21-count criminal complaint against Sgt. Ricky Romero, but said 10 counts of falsification of documents and one count of Medicaid fraud would stand as the trial concluded its final day of arguments.

Backus reached the decision Thursday morning after Romero's defense attorney, Alan Maestas, filed a motion to throw out the case entirely, citing a lack of evidence presented by the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General. 

Romero was a 2014 candidate for sheriff who had no prior criminal record in New Mexico. He allegedly falsified 10 timesheets submitted to Options Home Care Inc., a Denver-based company, between April 2012 and September 2013, according to a complaint filed by a special agent of the Office of the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud and Elder Abuse Division.

Maestas cited language in the timesheets, which stated that caregivers "certify" services provided to clients, but not necessarily time periods worked. He argued that certification did not constitute perjury because signees were not under oath and the word "affirmation," not "certification," is specifically used in the relevant state statute.

Romero, who is now 52, and held the rank of deputy when he started working as a caretaker for Thomas Roybal, his elderly neighbor in Peñasco, was originally charged with 21 counts, including 10 counts of perjury, 10 counts of falsification of documents and one count of Medicaid fraud.

On Wednesday (Aug. 1), prosecutor Joseph Martinez called special agent Jessica Mascareñas of the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Division to the stand to explain how she had investigated the case.

Mascareñas described a painstaking process of sifting through many pages of timesheets for Options Home Care, the Taos County Sheriff's Office and overtime forms Romero regularly submitted to Taos County for reimbursement in 2012 and 2013.

The state argued throughout trial that the hours for the two jobs Romero worked frequently overlapped, to the point where it would have been "impossible," prosecutor Tony Long contended, for Romero to have been working for both Taos County and Options at the same time.

According to testimony by former Sheriff Miguel Romero, the sergeant never disclosed to him that he held another job and was not permitted to work for another employer while on duty with the sheriff's office.

Earlier on Wednesday, prosecutor Derek Skinner of the Attorney General’s Office had called on Taos Police records custodian and former dispatcher Betsy McCullough to discuss records created when Romero was working for the sheriff’s office and Options Home Care. Numerous dispatch record sheets were admitted as evidence as McCullough read aloud for the jury the times Romero reported for duty and ended his daily shifts during the period in question.

The state would utilize the records as further evidence to show Romero allegedly could not have been where he said he was based on the overlapping schedules. McCullough acknowledged, however, that errors often made their way into dispatch reports and were not corrected.

On Tuesday (July 31), Martinez said the evidence would note that Options timesheets also specifically warned caretakers they could be penalized with Medicaid fraud if they falsified information.

Like other Options' clients, however, Roybal also signed off on the time sheets. Later, prosecutors would note similarities in Romero's signature and Roybal's, suggesting to the jury that Romero had forged Roybal's signature.

Maestas would argue that the Options schedule itself was less important than the services caretakers provided to clients. During cross-examinations, Maestas would ask clients if any complaint had ever been submitted regarding Romero's completion of services, and all would say "no."

Some of the witnesses called had worked for Options in the past, including one of its first employees, Carla Fernandez-Blea, who said caretakers were required to call their local office or a 24-hour emergency phone line to alert a supervisor of any deviation from the hours they listed on the time sheets.

According to the state, Romero failed to follow that protocol.

Leading to trial earlier this month, Maestas filed a motion to dismiss counts one through 11, which include Medicaid fraud and the 10 counts of falsification of documents, arguing that “the state has failed to allege facts that would support the criminal charges.”

A day later, the Attorney General’s Office filed a response which affirmed the office’s duty to prosecute Medicaid fraud and that all charges in the criminal complaint were either defined as crimes under the Medicaid Fraud Act, or were “directly related to the use of Medicaid program funds.”

For more, check back here at taosnews.com.

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