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United States v. Hughes

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

November 5, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN CICERO HUGHES, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DANA L. CHRISTENSEN, CHIEF JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant John Cicero Hughes's Opposed Combined Rule 29 and Rule 33 Motion. (Doc. 126.) The Court denies the motion.

         Background

         Following a five-day jury trial culminating in five hours of deliberation, Hughes was convicted on all counts of a twenty-count indictment. The counts of conviction are: (1) one count of health care fraud; (2) seventeen counts of theft of government money; (3) one count of false statements; and (4) one count of social security disability insurance fraud. All counts relate to Hughes's procurement of disability payments through the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration. Hughes now moves for judgment of acquittal on all counts under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29 and for a new trial under Rule 33.

         Discussion

         I. Rule 29 Motion

         Within 14 days of a guilty verdict, a defendant may move for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(c)(1). If the Court grants a motion for acquittal under this section, it must then "conditionally determine whether any motion for a new trial should be granted if the judgment of acquittal is later vacated or reversed." Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(d)(1). "A judgment of acquittal is improper if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Ching TangLo, 447 F.3d 1212, 1221 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Alston, 974 F.2d 1206, 1210 (9th Cir. 1992)).

         Consistent with Hughes's oral Rule 29 motions made during trial, he argues that the government failed to meet its evidentiary burden as to each count of conviction.

         A. Count 1: Health Care Fraud

         Hughes was convicted of one count of health care fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1347. The Court's elements instruction derived directly from Ninth Circuit Criminal Pattern Jury Instruction 8.128A. In convicting Hughes on Count 1, the jury unanimously found that: (1) Hughes knowingly and willfully executed a scheme or plan to obtain money or property under the custody or control of a health care benefit program by means of material false or fraudulent pretenses or representations; (2) he acted with the intent to defraud; (3) the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration[1] were health care benefit programs; and (4) the scheme or plan was executed in connection with the delivery or payment for health care benefits, items, or services. (Doc. 115 at 16.)

         Hughes argues that the government did not prove health care fraud because: (1) it failed to prove that Hughes acted with intent to defraud; (2) it failed to prove that Hughes made materially false statements; and (3) it failed to show that Hughes did not act out of ignorance, mistake, or accident. (Doc. 127 at 4-5.) A reasonable jurist could find that the government met its burden as to each element of health care fraud.

         First, the jury saw video evidence of Hughes running errands, driving, riding a motorcycle, and clearing snow off the roof of an RV, activities that could reasonably be viewed as inconsistent with the information Hughes provided to the VA healthcare provider who assessed his disability rating on January 23, 2018. Given that inconsistency, it would not be unreasonable for a jurist to find that Hughes acted knowingly, willfully, and with the intent to defraud. Second, a jurist could also reasonably conclude that Hughes's statements to the provider were material, as the provider testified that she took them into account in her evaluation of Hughes's disability. Third and finally, the fact that the VA did not inform Hughes of an obligation to report changes in his condition is fertile ground for a defense to the requisite mental state but not a reason to grant Hughes's motion for acquittal. Hughes made this argument to the jury, and the jury rejected it, which was not unreasonable in light of the evidence supporting its finding that Hughes exaggerated his condition during the January 23, 2018 assessment. The jury was not instructed that it could convict simply on Hughes's failure to update the VA as his symptoms improved, and there is no reason to believe that they convicted him on such basis.

         B. Count 2-18: Theft of Government Money

         The jury convicted Hughes of seventeen counts of theft of government money in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 641. Following Ninth Circuit Criminal Pattern Jury Instruction 8.39, the jury found as to each count that: (1) Hughes knowingly converted to his use money with the intention of depriving the owner of the use or benefit of the money; (2) the money belonged to the United States; and (3) the value of the money was more ...


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