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Amid coronavirus outbreak, former Pharr city commissioner may be released from prison early

2 months 3 weeks 5 days ago Wednesday, April 08 2020 Apr 8, 2020 April 08, 2020 9:25 AM April 08, 2020 in News - Coronavirus Pandemic

Former Pharr City Commissioner Oscar Elizondo — who is serving a nearly two-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to commit health care fraud — may be released a week early amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Elizondo, 50, of Pharr is scheduled to transfer from the federal prison camp in Oakdale, Louisiana, to a halfway house on April 20, according to an emergency motion filed Tuesday by attorney Eric Reed of Houston, who represents him.

The coronavirus pandemic hit Oakdale hard. Four employees and 38 inmates tested positive for the virus, according to information released by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on Tuesday. Five inmates died.

“An immediate transfer to home confinement is the only rational solution under the circumstances,” according to the emergency motion. “An interim transfer to a halfway house merely extends the problem because, much like cruise ships and nursing homes, congregate living facilities like halfway houses are extremely dangerous in a pandemic, given the impossibility of social distancing in confined shared space and the large numbers of persons jointly confined.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas doesn’t oppose the request “so long as appropriate measures are taken to ensure that Mr. Elizondo’s release to home confinement does not endanger the health of the community,” according to the motion.

"From the beginning of this crisis, Attorney General Barr has made it clear that the critical law enforcement mission of the Justice Department will continue. At the same time, working with the courts, we are taking into consideration the health and safety of prisoners, law enforcement personnel, and the public at large," according to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney's Office. "Attorney General Barr first addressed this issue before the passage of the CARES Act, in a memo he issued on March 26, which directed the BOP to prioritize home confinement as a response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.  Under additional authorities granted to the Attorney General by the CARES Act, on April 3 he further directed BOP to expand the use of home confinement for inmates in federal prisons encountering significant outbreaks, only for those who qualify and do not pose a danger to the community."

Reed couldn't immediately be reached for comment Wednesday morning.

The indictment claimed Elizondo and Omar Espericueta, the owner of Peñitas Family Pharmacy, submitted fraudulent claims to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.

They targeted people who worked for the city of Mission, the city of Pharr and the Point Isabel Independent School District, according to the indictment.

Along with marketers and other associates, Elizondo and Espericueta provided the employees with free drinks and food. During the meals, they talked about prescription scar creams and pain patches.

Elizondo and Espericueta paid kickbacks to a doctor in exchange for writing the fraudulent prescriptions. Armed with the prescriptions and insurance information, they billed Blue Cross Blue Shield for nearly $1.8 million.

Employees didn’t actually receive the pain patches and scar creams, according to the indictment.

Elizondo pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud. U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced him to 22 months in prison.

“Mr. Elizondo has been a model inmate during his period of incarceration,” according to the emergency motion. “He has no violations of facility rules, and he is among a very small number of inmates entrusted and authorized by prison officials to enjoy community custody privileges, including driving a prison truck off premises to pick up and deliver goods and to transport released prisoners to the airport and halfway houses.”

Elizondo is scheduled for release on April 20, according to the emergency motion. After roughly three weeks at a halfway house, Elizondo would start home confinement on May 13.

“Given the intensity of the COVID-19 virus in his particular facility, together with the proximity of his release date in two weeks and his non-violent history, the Defendant respectfully requests the Court order BOP to immediately release Mr. Elizondo,” according to the emergency motion, which continued: “and order him confined to his home for the remainder of his sentence with such home confinement serving also to quarantine Mr. Elizondo for at least 14 days or other appropriate period.”

The emergency motion also explained how Elizondo would self-quarantine when he returned to Pharr.

“Both Mr. Elizondo and his wife have committed to placing Mr. Elizondo under home-quarantine for 14 days and maintaining appropriate isolation and distance in a separate room of the home for their personal protection and the safety of the community,” according to the emergency motion. “If necessary, his wife and children will move into the home of her parents leaving Mr. Elizondo isolated for an appropriate period.”

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