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Mistakes by a government computer forensics laboratory have led to the dismissal of charges against the owner of a women's clinic accused of defrauding the popular Baby Your Baby program.
U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball has agreed with defense attorneys that LaRohnda Dennison could not get a fair trial because of the lost evidence.
Dennison, co-owner and manager of the now-defunct WestView Community Health Center, was indicted on 22 counts by a grand jury last December after a three-year investigation by state and federal agents. Her trial was to have begun next month.
She was accused of managing a scheme to defraud the government of $1 million in Medicaid money from 2005 to 2010 by illegally helping undocumented immigrants get prenatal care through the state Baby Your Baby program.
It is funded by state and federal tax dollars, and is intended only for those who are citizens or resident aliens with green cards. Baby Your Baby provides temporary care for low-income expectant women as they await Medicaid benefits.
The WestView case prompted the Utah Department of Health to tighten application procedures.
Dennison has always claimed that it was Sandra Hernandez, her office administrator, who coached undocumented immigrants on how to get around rules so they could qualify. Dennison said she had no knowledge of the fraud.
Hernandez pleaded guilty to one count last winter and was set to testify against Dennison next month. Hernandez is awaiting sentencing.
The clinic in West Valley City provided pre- and postnatal care, labor and delivery, and pediatric care, but closed in the middle of a state investigation in 2010.
Dennison has since filed for bankruptcy and moved to Denver, Colo. "She's very relieved and thrilled with the judge's decision," said her attorney, Tara Isaacson.
Kimball signed his order Thursday.
Isaacson said it became apparent during research for the trial that the government's evidence was lost or corrupted after investigators made copies of 30 computer hard drives at WestView in an August 2010 search.
"…Six of the computer hard drives are completely lost and the information contained on the remaining twenty-four has been corrupted to the point that it is not in a format that enables it to be used at trial," Kimball wrote in his order.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment Monday, saying only that the judge's order "speaks for itself."
Spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch, however, noted a footnote the judge included in his order. In it, Kimball said he found "no bad faith" on the part of the government. "The court recognizes that the forensics lab encountered a series of unfortunate errors or mistakes that were entirely unintentional," the judge wrote.
The Department of Health immediately changed one practice in the wake of the 2010 investigation: It asked clinics to use only nine-digit numbers beginning with 000, which no real Social Security number includes, when a woman needed a temporary identifying number.
Previously, women applying for the Baby Your Baby program at a medical clinics provided their Social Security numbers. If a woman didn't have one, she was given a temporary nine-digit number from a series provided by the state.
A 2011 Tribune investigation found, however, that some of those numbers including at least one given to an undocumented immigrant at WestView precisely matched Social Security numbers belonging to residents in northeastern states.
Now, however, the clinics never use Social Security numbers or temporary ones in lieu of them at all, said Kolbi Young, a spokeswoman for the Medicaid program.
Women applying for Baby Your Baby benefits get a receipt for their application and, within a few days, a Medicaid card with a 10-digit number showing they are eligible, Young said Monday.