The very last name on President Donald Trump’s newly released list of 20 pardons and commutations is Philip Esformes, a man the White House describes as a victim of “prosecutorial misconduct” who has been “devoted to prayer and repentance” during his time behind bars.
What the White House doesn’t mention is that Esformes, now 52, was sentenced just last year to two decades in prison for his central role in an elaborate, billion-dollar Medicare fraud scheme in which he and others exploited elderly and poor patients for profit—in some cases with deadly consequences.
Esformes, who the White House said is in declining health, was convicted last April of bribery, money laundering, and other charges. Trump announced late Tuesday that he has commuted Esformes’ sentence.
“Duncan Hunter was convicted for spending campaign money to fund his personal lifestyle, Chris Collins engaged in illegal insider trading. These corrupt politicians don’t deserve a pardon.”
—Rep. Katie Porter
The Chicago Tribune reported last September that “Esformes, who once controlled a network of more than two dozen healthcare facilities that stretched from Chicago to Miami, garnered $1.3 billion Medicaid revenues by bribing medical professionals who referred patients to his Florida facilities then paid off government regulators as vulnerable residents were injured by their peers, prosecutors said.”
“In Esformes’ Oceanside Extended Care Center in Miami Beach,” the Tribune noted, “‘an elderly patient was attacked and beaten to death by a younger mental health patient who never should have been at [a nursing facility] in the first place,’ prosecutors wrote in a pre-sentencing memo.”
After U.S. District Judge Robert Scola of the Southern District of Florida sentenced Esformes to 20 years in prison last September, a member of Trump’s own Justice Department described the nursing home mogul as “a man driven by almost unbounded greed.”
“The illicit road Esformes took to satisfy his greediness led to millions in fraudulent healthcare claims, the largest amount ever charged by the Department of Justice,” Deputy Special Agent in Charge Denise Stemen of the FBI’s Miami Field Office said at the time. “Along that road, Esformes cycled patients through his facilities in poor condition where they received inadequate or unnecessary treatment, then improperly billed Medicare and Medicaid.”
“Taking his despicable conduct further,” Stemen continued, “he bribed doctors and regulators to advance his criminal conduct and even bribed a college official in exchange for gaining admission for his son to that university.”
On Tuesday night, Trump commuted Esformes’ prison term as part of a fresh wave of pre-Christmas clemency orders that included full pardons for four former Blackwater guards jailed for massacring Iraqi civilians, a pair of disgraced former Republican lawmakers, and a former campaign aide who pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials.
“These pardons are grotesque,” tweeted Mary Trump, a psychologist and the president’s niece. “The corrupt, the criminal, murderers of children—that’s who Donald lets off the hook. We can never forget and never forgive the unspeakable cruelty.”
Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) called Trump’s decision to fully pardon former Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) “appalling.”
Duncan Hunter was convicted for spending campaign money to fund his personal lifestyle, Chris Collins engaged in illegal insider trading. These corrupt politicians don’t deserve a pardon. Appalling decision by the President. https://t.co/GmCduP4qko
— Katie Porter (@katieporteroc) December 23, 2020
As John Gramlich and Kristen Bialik of the Pew Research Center noted last month, Trump has used his clemency power “less often than any president in modern history,” typically deploying it not to help ordinary victims of mass incarceration but rather to assist those with whom he is connected personally or politically.
“While rare so far, Trump’s use of presidential clemency has caused controversy because of the nature of his pardons and commutations,” wrote Gramlich and Bialik. “Many of Trump’s clemency recipients have had a ‘personal or political connection to the president,’ according to a July analysis by the Lawfare blog, and he has often circumvented the formal process through which clemency requests are typically considered.”
It is unclear whether Esformes has any political or personal ties to the president. According to the Miami Herald, “Esformes has never written a check to support Trump, according to Federal Election Commission records. If anything, Esformes, his former wife, Sherri, and his father, Morris, have been donors to the Democratic Party candidates.”
“Esformes and his wife gave $100,000 combined in 2012 to support President Barack Obama’s reelection,” the Herald noted. “Sherri also gave $17,600 in 2010 to support the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That same year Philip Esformes, Inc. gave $10,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.”
The president’s commutation did not overturn an order requiring Esformes to pay $44 million in restitution to Medicare.
Esformes is not the first Medicare fraudster who has had their prison sentence commuted by Trump. In February, the president commuted the 35-year prison sentence of Judith Negron, who was jailed for “aiding in a $200 million fraud case in what was then the country’s biggest mental health billing racket,” as the Tampa Bay Times reported.
On Tuesday, Trump commuted the remainder of Negron’s term of supervised release.
In response to Trump’s decision to commute Esformes’ sentence, former federal prosecutor Ben Curtis told the Herald that “in a perfect world, a commutation would be the result of a thoughtful, apolitical process intended to offset a grave injustice.”
“Did that happen here? Seeing this decision today and knowing the history of healthcare fraud in South Florida,” said Curtis, “it’s tough not to become cynical about the justice system.”