Salt Lake City fraud case dismissed after evidence is lost

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge has dismissed charges against a woman accused of defrauding Medicaid to help women in the country illegally get prenatal care after evidence in the case was lost.

LaRohnda Dennison couldn't have received a fair trial without the evidence from computer hard drives that were either corrupted or went missing, said defense attorney Tara Isaacson on Tuesday.

"When the government takes evidence, makes copies of evidence, they have a duty to preserve that," she said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah, Melodie Rydalch, declined to comment.

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball dismissed the case Friday, writing in his ruling that the loss of evidence was caused by a series of unintentional errors or mistakes by a forensic lab contracted to handle it.

Dennison was accused of defrauding the government of more than $1 million over five years by advertising her clinic's services in the Hispanic community, then telling her staff to coach immigrants on getting prenatal care through the Baby Your Baby program if they didn't have a valid Social Security number.

Authorities served a warrant on Dennison's clinic, the Westview Community Health Center, in 2010 making copies of almost all the clinic's day-to-day records over five years. Investigators copied images from the computers and transferred them to hard drives.

Dennison maintains her innocence and says a former medical assistant helped the women get around the law. The assistant has pleaded guilty to a single charge in the case and was cooperating with the government, according to court documents.

Dennison says the information from the computers would have exonerated her because it showed the patient documents were in Spanish, a language she doesn't understand or speak.

The data problems were discovered in January, long after Westview went out of business and Dennison got rid of the computers.

Prosecutors argued that they didn't have to preserve the evidence since they didn't take the computers, only copies, but Kimball ruled that Dennison had no reason to keep the machines.

With the amount of evidence taken by the government, he said it was reasonable to think that something in there could have been used for Dennison's defense.

"The amount of evidence lost in this case is substantial," Kimball wrote in a ruling first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune. "Without the computer evidence, it becomes a situation of he-said, she-said with no means of supporting either position."

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