Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade surgery scam is con man’s latest caper

Booking photo: James Sabatino’s Miami-Dade Corrections mug shot from 2013.
Booking photo: James Sabatino’s Miami-Dade Corrections mug shot from 2013.

A lot of things are crooked about Jimmy Sabatino, but a lazy eye is no longer one of them.

The career con man — Sabatino, 37, has spent all but a few weeks of his adult life behind bars for running scams from Miami to London — claims his latest caper came at the expense of Miami-Dade County taxpayers.

Sabatino, while in Miami-Dade Corrections custody, underwent surgery Aug. 28 at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute to repair a lazy right eye that has plagued him since his youth.

“It’s not lazy no more,” Sabatino said in a phone call to the Miami Herald from Miami-Dade’s Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.

Sabatino, who is set to be sentenced Tuesday on theft and fraud charges from last year, recounts with amusement and disbelief how he talked his way into the operating room for what he considers a cosmetic procedure.

“I kept saying I was having these headaches, and how can we make them stop?” Sabatino said of his visits to the Corrections Health Services clinic. “Next thing I know, they approved the surgery.”

Sabatino said the cost of the procedure, plus pre- and post-op appointments, totaled $247,000, although he did not provide billing documentation and is sometimes prone to exaggerations or, let’s face it, downright fabrications. He claimed that amount doesn’t include many days of in-patient treatment, during which time he had to be observed by a round-the-clock security team. He said the judge presiding over his case, Ariana Fajardo, “blew up” in anger during a hearing this month when she learned the size of Sabatino’s medical bill — to be paid by taxpayers.

Sabatino’s surgery was deemed medically necessary, according to Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office spokesman Ed Griffith.

“The doctors told us he needed this surgery,” Griffith said. “We’re not going to argue with them when they tell us a procedure is medically necessary.”

Miami-Dade Corrections referred questions about Sabatino’s medical treatment to Jackson Health System, which manages inmate care. A Jackson spokeswoman declined to comment, citing patient privacy.

Sabatino provided a July 7 doctor referral on University of Miami Health System letterhead that notes his lazy eye came from a cerebrovascular accident — a stroke — in 2013. “He is a candidate for surgical correction as improved alignment may improve ... headache symptoms,” the referral states.

Blaming the eye condition on a stroke at the jail was clearly bogus, as anyone with two good eyes could see if they looked at any of his many mug shots, including the one on his Miami-Dade inmate ID. He’s had the lazy eye since he was a boy.

“The picture of me on that [ID] card, my eye is all the way over on the side of my face,” Sabatino said.

Strabismus, the medical term for a lazy eye, usually occurs during childhood, although strokes can cause it to happen to adults. An ophthalmologist can correct strabismus by surgically adjusting the eye muscle.

“We can reposition the muscle ... and change the position of the eye,” Dr. Hilda Capo explains in a video on her University of Miami Health web page.

Capo, the Bascom Palmer ophthalmologist who Sabatino said performed his surgery, has done research on adult strabismus surgery and the use of adjustable sutures in the procedure, which Sabatino said he received.

The high cost of Sabatino’s medical bills, he said, includes multiple CT scans and MRIs as well as related care from an anesthesiologist, a cardiologist and a neurologist. Websites that track the costs of medical procedures put the total price of adult strabismus surgery closer to $5,000 to $10,000.

Strabismus surgery is Medicare-approved and is not considered a cosmetic procedure, said Dr. Casey Beal, a University of Florida ophthalmologist. “It’s a functional surgery to improve vision,” he said.

Last year, Miami-Dade County and Jackson Health agreed to a long and expensive list of improvements in the treatment of jail inmates. Jackson, which spent $26.1 million on inmate healthcare in 2014, budgeted $32.5 million for those costs in 2015.

The added expenditures are a result of a three-year U.S. Department of Justice probe that found a “pattern and practice of constitutional violation” of inmate rights in the nation’s eighth-largest jail system. The county’s corrections department is now under a federal monitoring “consent decree.”

“The Department of Justice … has required some significant increases relative to personnel, especially in the patient care area in our five jail locations around the county,” Jackson CFO Mark Knight said in July.

Sabatino’s public defender declined to comment for this article. She helped secure him a plea deal that will send him to prison for a fraction of the time he faced for charges stemming from a three-month hotel scam he orchestrated last summer.

Miami criminal defense lawyer Grant Dwyer does not represent Sabatino, but said they have talked several times in court and in jail over the past year. The last time was Sept. 16, at Sabatino's first post-surgery court appearance.

“He definitely looked better than I remembered,” Dwyer said. “His eyes were both pointed in the right direction, straight ahead.”

It was just weeks after being released from federal prison in May 2013 that Sabatino reverted to one of his tried-and-true cons. He posed as a music-label executive, checking in to four Miami and Miami Beach hotels and using his VIP status to rack up nearly $600,000 worth of unpaid tabs for presidential suites, fine Champagne and haute cuisine.

Sabatino convinced the gatekeepers at the Hilton Bentley South Beach, where he stayed for five weeks last August and September, that he was a Sony Music bigwig. There, he and his entourage guzzled $100,000 in booze and tallied $74,000 in other charges before skedaddling. When police caught up with Sabatino, he had about $50,000 worth of Champagne stashed in his car.

As part of his plea agreement, Sabatino will have to repay $594,000 to the hotels. That’s in addition to the seven-figure restitution Sabatino owes in various other state and federal cases dating to 1995. “They’ll have to get in line,” Sabatino said of the hotels’ likelihood of getting their money back.

Sabatino is quick to cop to his cons both new and old, including an infamous caper that had him posing as a Blockbuster executive to score 262 free tickets to Super Bowl XXIX in Miami that he sold for a big profit.

While he acknowledges ripping off hotels and corporations, Sabatino is still miffed that police accused him of cavorting with an underage female at the time of his arrest last year. “Never happened,” Sabatino said. Prosecutors seemed to agree: They dropped charges against Sabatino related to sexual activity with a minor and possession of child pornography.

Looking forward to his projected release in 2017, Sabatino said he’s ready to give up the con game and go straight. But first, at 5-foot-6 and 300 pounds, he joked about whether he can get his jailers to approve lap-band surgery.

“In all honesty, I have a lot more confidence now” as a result of the lazy-eye correction, Sabatino said. “I used to look down at the ground a lot. Now, I can look right at you, look you right in the eye.”

A con man’s lifetime of cons

1993-’94: James Sabatino was arrested as a juvenile in Florida, Georgia, Virginia, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Several incidents stemmed from the then-17-year-old Sabatino posing as a Coca-Cola executive to get hotel rooms.

1995: Claimed to be a Blockbuster executive to obtain 262 free tickets to Super Bowl XXIX in Miami. Also acquired 55 pagers worth more than $12,000 by posing as a Sony Music executive’s nephew. Pleaded guilty to fraud, sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay $100,000 in restitution.

1997: Out of prison, Sabatino, 21, threw himself a $54,727 welcome-back party at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Arrested on theft charges after he failed to pay.

1998: Fled to London while out on bail. Claimed to be a movie-studio executive to get access to a room at the Four Seasons. Arrested in London, sentenced to several months in prison there. Called the FBI in Miami from his prison cell, threatening to kill then-President Bill Clinton and blow up a federal courthouse. Deported to the United States. Charged with assaulting guard at Miami’s Federal Detention Center.

2000: Pleaded guilty to making telephone threats, sentenced to four years in prison.

2002: Charged with running a scam from prison that defrauded phone carrier Nextel out of about $3 million.

2003: Pleaded guilty to fraud and identity theft in the Nextel case, sentenced to 11 years in prison.

2013: Released from prison in May. From July through September, Sabatino racked up unpaid tabs of almost $600,000 at the Eden Roc, SLS, South Beach Hilton and downtown Miami Hilton. Arrested Sept. 27, charged with grand theft and organized scheme to defraud.

2014: In July, accepted plea deal for a five-year sentence plus probation and restitution. In August, underwent surgery to correct a lazy eye. He will be sentenced Tuesday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

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