Lorena Colino immigrated to the United States from South America, got a job working as a service representative at the Social Security Administration in Orange County and secretly cheated to give social security numbers to illegal immigrants.
Believing that Colino was involved in a bribery scheme, federal agents arrested her and a 2006 jury found her guilty of 11 counts of honest services fraud with co-conspirator Ramon Antonio Rojas, a furniture salesman. She was sent to prison for 15 months and served the time.
But to Colino's delight, the case wasn't over.
This week over the objections of federal prosecutors, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter erased Colino's convictions on a technicality.
Here's why: After Colino's jury convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court tinkered with the jury instruction requirements for honest services cases to retroactively require that the government prove the offender didn't just cheat but also took bribes or kickbacks.
The ruling put Colino's prosecutors in a pickle because at the time of her trial they didn't have the requirement.
In fact, Rojas admitted that he charged $1,300 to $3,000 as the middleman in the scheme that lasted from January 2001 to January 2004. It didn't help Colino's cause that when interviewed by federal agents she denied knowing Rojas even though they were close friends, and her bank account contained more than $7,000 in suspicious deposits.
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Federal prosecutors were unequivocal: "She did it for money, like Rojas."
But Colino recently told Judge Carter that she'd cheated only out of sympathy for the immigrants and, though Rojas insisted under oath that he split the bribes, never financially benefited from the scam.
Whether or not he believed her isn't known, but what's certain is that Carter determined that the new government burden hadn't been met in the old case and so he erased the convictions.