Former Rio Bravo mayor seeks release from prison citing COVID-19 fears

Former Mayor of Rio Bravo Francisco Pena, 82, has filed a petition seeking his release from prison in Willacy County. Pena has been incarcerated pending sentencing on healthcare fraud convictions since November of last year.

The former mayor and licensed physician who served as medical director at Merida Health Group is set for a Dec. 16 sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera, Jr. in Brownsville.

A jury found Pena guilty of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, healthcare fraud, obstruction of health care investigations, and false statements on Nov. 6, 2019.

Pena’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus stated that he currently resides in the intake area at the Willacy County Regional Detention Facility in Raymondville.

Following the November 2019 trial, Olvera ordered Pena and other defendants to home confinement with electronic surveillance pending sentencing, but then reversed himself approximately two weeks later, ordering Pena to surrender to the U.S. Marshal Service.

Pena’s attorney wrote that the Rio Grande Valley has become a “hotspot of a hotspot”, citing a Hidalgo County health official. The petition stated that Pena is unable to adequately protect himself during his prolonged detention despite having several serious health conditions.

Asking for home confinement, the petition argued that COVID-19 visitation restrictions are placing an unfair prejudicial effect on Pena’s ability to prepare for sentencing.

According to the document, Pena lives in a two-person cell in the facility’s intake center, where prisoners are moved in and out. Many of them don’t have the money to purchase hand sanitizer, Pena’s attorney wrote.

Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics cited by the attorney indicated 106 federal inmate deaths due to the virus, despite protections put in place. Those numbers did not include privately-operated facilities like Willacy Regional, which is overseen by Management and Training Corporation (MTC).

Pena was charged alongside former colleagues Rodney Mesquias and Henry McInnis on an indictment accusing the men of engaging in a scheme that involved over $150 million in fraudulent hospice claims, as well as other healthcare services.

According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, Merida Group enrolled patients with long-term illness like dementia and Alzheimers in hospice care then falsely informed those patients they had less than six months to live, even going so far as to send chaplains to discuss last rites.

Patients were kept on these services for multiple years in order increase revenue, the office wrote, citing evidence presented at trial.

Prosecutors accused Pena of giving a false statement to the FBI and directing others to obstruct the FBI’s investigation by covering up his involvement in accepting kickbacks for hospice patients, both from his official office at Rio Bravo City Halls as mayor, and elsewhere, USAOwrote.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com