A federal judge sentenced a former medical assistant to two-and-half years in prison Thursday for smuggling marijuana into the East Hidalgo Detention Center.
U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez sentenced Veronica Ortega, 45, of McAllen to 30 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.
In exchange for cash, Ortega provided inmates with marijuana. She accepted bribes on at least two occasions.
“For you, as a medical professional, to bring drugs into a facility is incomprehensible,” Alvarez said. “And for nothing more than a few dollars.”
Ortega and six other East Hidalgo Detention Center employees were indicted after an investigation conducted by the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Inspector General.
Six employees confessed to providing inmates with drugs or home-cooked food. In exchange, they received cash and other items — including a truck, a gift card and a horse.
The seventh employee, who had a sexual relationship with an inmate, pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of a ward.
“First and foremost, I want to apologize to the United States of America,” Ortega said, adding that she failed at her job.
Attorney Belia A. Peña of Edinburg, who represented Ortega, emphasized that her client had no criminal record.
“This is Ms. Ortega’s first and only conviction,” Peña said.
The case took a tremendous emotional and psychological toll on Ortega, who already suffered from serious medical conditions, Peña said.
While her attorney didn’t provide any details about the medical conditions during the hearing, Ortega said she had brittle diabetes.
Ortega said she attempts to manage her condition, which causes severe swings in blood sugar, by monitoring her diet and taking medication purchased in Mexico.
U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines suggested a 24- to 30-month prison sentence for Ortega.
A prison sentence would place Ortega at risk of death, Peña said, because of her medical conditions. Peña also said Ortega isn’t vaccinated against COVID-19, which placed her at additional risk.
“She’s unvaccinated by choice, your honor,” Peña said.
Ortega believes that because her immune system is weak, the vaccine may do more harm than good, Peña said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, recommends that people with moderately to severely compromised immune systems get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Peña requested that Alvarez, the federal judge, consider a shorter prison sentence.
“The fact that you are not vaccinated by choice is not a reason for variance or departure,” Alvarez said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Cook Profit, who prosecuted the case, said Ortega may actually benefit from incarceration because the U.S. Bureau of Prisons provides excellent medical care.
Profit also opposed a shorter prison sentence, concerned about the “very serious” nature of the crime. Alvarez agreed.
“We pride ourselves on being a nation of laws,” Alvarez said.
People come to the United States because of corruption in their home countries, Alvarez said. They sometimes leave behind their homes, their businesses and their families to escape lawlessness.
“And all because, in many instances, their law enforcement communities are corrupt,” Alvarez said.
Corruption in law enforcement and the judicial system threatens the community, Alvarez said. Even people with relatively small roles, such as Ortega, must remain honest.
Alvarez acknowledged the case probably had taken a physical and emotional toll on Ortega, which isn’t uncommon for first-time offenders. Ortega, though, brought that on herself.
“You were interested in lining your own pocket,” Alvarez said. “And that was your only consideration.”