A customs officer in Nogales who faked a cancer diagnosis to obtain paid sick leave was sentenced to two years of probation Friday.
Suzette Cota, 34, gave a letter to her superiors in 2013 that was purportedly from a Goodyear cancer center. The letter said Cota was diagnosed with Stage 1 stomach cancer and needed twice-monthly treatments. Her superiors then gave her 200 hours of advance sick leave.
However, the name of the cancer center employee on the letter was fake, Cota was not diagnosed with cancer and she was not a patient at the center, Cota admitted in a June plea agreement.
“Why would you do something like that?” Judge Raner C. Collins asked Cota during her sentencing hearing Friday in U.S. District Court in Tucson.
“I don’t know. I was in a very horrible relationship and I shut down,” Cota replied. “I was embarrassed to ask for help.”
At the time she faked the letter, she suffered from chronic abdominal pain and had used up her allotted sick leave, her attorney Louis Fidel wrote in a sentencing memorandum. She “deeply regrets” writing the letter and she paid back the sick leave over the next two years.
A federal grand jury indicted Cota in December on three counts of making false statements to government officials and five counts of wire fraud.
Cota pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements, a Class D felony. She faced up to six months in prison, but prosecutors agreed to probation. The remaining charges were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.
The wire fraud charges stemmed from a separate scheme in 2015 in which Cota applied for a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program that allowed employees to donate unused leave time to colleagues who have a medical emergency.
Cota said her daughter was sick and would have to stay home from school. Cota said she did not have child care available and would have to stay home with her daughter, Fidel wrote. Her daughter was sick but she did not need to stay home from school frequently.
After hearing about her daughter’s illness, CBP officers donated 288 hours of their unused leave time. She used 249 of those hours from September 2015 to January 2016.
The Nogales native resigned from CBP, where she worked as an entry specialist supervising the fees and tariffs paid on commercial goods and produce entering the United States, Fidel wrote.
Prosecutors said Cota was paid a salary of about $62,000.
Cota started working with CBP in 2008 as an officer “on the line” at the port before she was transferred to the office position in 2011, Fidel wrote. She was named employee of the month in 2014 and 2015 and was an acting supervisor in 2016.
Cota had no previous criminal record when she was handcuffed in front of her colleagues by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Fidel wrote.
On Friday, federal prosecutor Jonathan Granoff asked Collins to sentence Cota to three years of probation.
Fidel requested one year of probation, saying Cota “already has had a tremendous punishment” that included two days spent in detention.
“Sometimes people go to prison for what she did, for a lot more than two days,” Collins said.
Fidel replied that some people are not taken into custody and instead are trusted to show up in court.
The conditions of her probation include volunteer work, mental health treatment and $7,800 in restitution, Collins said.