ATLANTA - Lawyers for one-time Democratic fund-raiser Jeanette Garrison, who admitted to laundering campaign contributions through her chain of home health agencies, asked judges Tuesday to void her $2.5 million fine and cut her Medicare fraud sentence.
Garrison's attorneys told the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that the judge who sentenced Garrison to 33 months in federal prison last summer exaggerated her role in the Healthmaster Inc. fraud case.
A panel of three judges bombarded a Justice Department prosector with questions Tuesday about the government's handling of the case, including why a Garrison associate who collected the campaign money from Healthmaster employees was never charged with a crime.
Garrison, a registered nurse from North Augusta, operated one of Georgia's largest chains of in-home nursing companies until her guilty plea on 10 federal felony counts.
The Augusta-based company, which also did business in four surrounding states, declared bankruptcy after the indictment of Garrison and two subordinates. It was sold at auction last year.
Garrison became a Democratic Party power-broker - a guest at President Clinton's inaugural, and a gubernatorial appointee to a Georgia state convention center board - with her generous campaign contributions.
But she acknowledged in court that some of the contributions were illegal. A company lawyer, Noel Ingram, solicited money from employees at Garrison's direction, and the givers were then repaid double as a "bonus" - an expense that was added onto Healthmaster's Medicare bills.
U.S. District Judge Anthony Alaimo imposed the fine and sentence after prosecutors pleaded for leniency in exchange for Garrison's testimony against co-defendants Dennis J. Kelly and David W. Suba. Both of them were found guilty and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Garrison defense attorney Craig Gillen argued Tuesday that Garrison's sentence under federal guidelines should be no more than 27 months.
Federal judges arrive at a "score" for the severity of each crime by adding up points for certain circumstances. Gillen said the judge improperly gave Garrison extra months for "abusing a position of trust," and for using her role as a supervisor to further her criminal scheme.
Garrison did not hold a position of trust with Medicare just because her company received more than 90 percent of its revenues from the federal health program, Gillen said. He likened her relationship with Medicare to a taxpayer's relationship with the IRS.
Judge Stanley Birch picked up that argument in an exchange with Justice Department lawyer Vicki Morani.
"This woman is a businessperson. If the government trusted everybody, they wouldn't audit anybody," Birch told her. "If you have trust with somebody, you don't set up a whole scheme to audit claims, do you?"
"Without the federal government, without Medicare, there is no Healthmaster," Morani responded. "Healthmaster lived and breathed because of its relationship with the federal government. Her responsibility was to the Medicare program."
Birch questioned how the government could allege that Garrison used her employees to commit crimes when Ingram, the only employee named as assisting in the campaign money scheme, was never indicted.
Morani struggled to answer the question. When she couldn't, Chief Judge Joseph W. Hatchett told her to drop that argument and move along.
Gillen also argued Garrison's $2.5 million fine exceeded the $75,000 limit set by sentencing guidelines for her level of offense.
Through the sale of Healthmaster, Garrison has repaid $16.5 million in alleged overcharges to Medicare and its state-run sister program, Medicaid, Gillen told the appeals court. An additional fine is simply punishing Garrison for being wealthy, he argued.
But Morani said a $75,000 fine would have been meaningless to someone who made an eight-figure fortune off Medicare.
"It needed to be sufficiently punitive," the prosecutor said, "and it would not have been sufficiently punitive if you only take into account the maximum amount of the sentencing guidelines."