COVID-19 exposure derails trial of surgeon in epic healthcare fraud case

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — The chief federal judge in Detroit is in quarantine and one of the largest health care fraud trials in U.S. history is on hold after the jurist and two staffers were exposed to someone who contracted COVID-19.

Chief U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood halted the trial indefinitely Wednesday after a staffer tested positive for COVID-19, temporarily derailing the first criminal jury trial in federal court in Detroit since the start of the pandemic 17 months ago.

Frank Patino

The case involves allegations Dr. Frank Patino, an alligator-wrestling surgeon from Woodhaven, headed a $120 million health care fraud scheme, laundered money through a vanity diet program and spent money sponsoring mixed martial arts fighters. If convicted, Patino could be sentenced to more than 20 years in federal prison.

Patino, 66, attended a Zoom hearing Wednesday during which the judge announced a staffer had exposed her and two others to COVID-19 and that they would quarantine for 10 days — potentially delaying the trail until Aug. 26. The judge does not believe any jurors were exposed to the coronavirus.

"Dr. Patino has been waiting three years for his day in court, so it's just more time," his lawyer David Nacht said.

Dr. Frank Patino's social media posts show him wrestling alligators, strolling on exotic beaches with his bikini-clad, younger wife and striking shirtless poses.

The person who contracted COVID-19 was not identified but is a member of the judge's staff who had been vaccinated.

Patino, who contracted COVID-19 and pneumonia during his three years in jail while awaiting trial, appeared dramatically different during the Zoom hearing than in social media posts and promotional photographs for his self-styled "Patino Diet" that frequently showed him shirtless, flexing and posing next to bikini-clad women. On Wednesday, he looked thin and older, but was clothed in an orange Livingston County Jail jumpsuit.

“It’s not scandalous or a calamity, it’s just the inevitability of trying to do this and keep everyone safe. I think she’s handling it well,” Nacht said of the judge. “It’s tough during COVID for anybody in this situation.”

The surgeon has been detained in federal prison since June 2018 amid allegations he hid millions of dollars in offshore bank accounts and concerns he will try to flee the United States if released on bond.

The trial stalled amid testimony from the government's first witness, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services special agent who investigated Patino.

The courthouse has made special accommodations since the pandemic's start.

Jurors aren't using the jury box. Instead, they are spaced throughout rows of pews in the second-floor courtroom gallery that defense lawyers and prosecutors cannot see while questioning witnesses from the lectern. Patino's supporters and other interested parties are relegated to an overflow courtroom with closed-circuit video.

The COVID-19 exposure followed a series of hiccups.

Frank Patino

Jury selection started Aug. 12 — after delays in transporting Patino 56 miles from the Livingston County jail to downtown Detroit — and spanned parts of three days. 

During the Zoom hearing, the judge asked Justice Department Trial Attorney Steven Scott if he had brought witnesses in from out of town.

"Yes," Scott said.

"From out of state?" the judge asked.

"Yes," Scott said.

"You should send them home," the judge said.

From 2016 to 2017, Patino wrote prescriptions for more than 2.2 million pills, including fentanyl, oxycodone and oxymorphone. Some of the medically unnecessary drugs ended up being resold on the street, according to the indictment.

With kickbacks and bribes from co-conspirators, the surgeon is accused of sponsoring mixed martial arts fighters, including hall of fame Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Urijah Faber.

The Patino case is linked to an investigation involving a $200 million scheme and businessman Mashiyat Rashid. Prosecutors say Rashid spent his share of the scheme on a $7 million Franklin mansion, court side NBA tickets, a Lamborghini, Hermes clothes and rare watches.

The trial is expected to last approximately one month and follows years of fights between prosecutors and defense lawyers and wild allegations.

Prosecutors and Patino's legal team have been fighting over evidence amassed during a years-long investigation, including testimony from witnesses that Patino allegedly traded drugs for sex with a stripper, hid profits from the illegal scheme and kept $50,000 in cash under a mattress. Other allegations include one claim Patino ripped out his sick, 80-pound ex-wife's feeding tube.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews