JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (CN) – Two Florida scientists who were sentenced to prison and ordered to pay $10.6 million in restitution after being convicted of fraudulently obtaining government research grants asked the 11th Circuit on Wednesday to overturn their conviction because the agencies involved were ultimately not harmed by their actions.
Mahmoud Aldissi and Anastassia Bogomolova were convicted in March 2015 of multiple counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and falsification of records involving a federal investigation. They are currently serving federal prison terms of 15 and 13 years, respectively.
At a special Wednesday seating of the 11th Circuit in Jacksonville, Florida, the scientists argued their conviction should be overturned because in the end they did perform the work they promised the government.
Arguing on behalf of the couple, attorney Thomas Burns sought to distinguish between simple deceit and all-out fraud. Deceit, he said, does not cause harm while fraud does.
But U.S. District Judge Robert David Proctor was far from convinced. Sitting on the three-judge panel by designation from Alabama, Proctor compared the scientists’ situation to that of a Little League team that surreptitiously brings in a 13-year-old to pitch to much younger competitors.
Once found out, Proctor said, “all of the team’s wins would have to be rescinded due to the pitcher’s age.”
He wondered if similarly, the scientists work would be invalidated by the fact they committed fraud to secure the funding for it.
Burns did not have an answer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberta Bodnar said that the United States did not deny the work had been performed, but said that performance “had been grounded in fraud.”
As a result, the government did not get what it paid for, Bodnar said.
Further, had Alidessi and Bogovola not committed fraud, there were a lot “of other people who could have [been funded],” she said.
But Judge Proctor was also interested in another issue: how the scientists got away with defrauding the government over an extended period.
Bodnar said the funding agencies did not have a budget to thoroughly research proposals.
U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Hull was not impressed with that explanation and asked why no one thought “to do a Google search” on the address given for the scientists’ companies — an address that turn out to be their home.
“That’s actually how they got caught,” Burns replied. “Someone did check.”
The panel did not indicate when it will rule on the case.