Cindy Omidi asks judge for probation instead of prison

A Los Angeles woman has asked a federal judge to sentence her to probation instead of prison for violating laws designed to prevent money laundering.

Cindy Omidi, 66, was convicted in October of illegally buying postal money orders in an amount just small enough to avoid scrutiny by postal workers. She and her sons, Michael and Julian Omidi, once operated a weight-loss surgery business that centered around the 1-800-GET-THIN ads that blanketed Southern California roadsides and airwaves.

Federal prosecutors have said Cindy Omidi should be sentenced to slightly more than three years in prison, saying she has shown disregard for the law and a history of "dishonesty, deceit and manipulation."

Defense lawyers said in a sentencing memorandum that prosecutors overreached. They said there is no evidence the money used to buy the money orders was obtained unlawfully.

"The government's pattern of utter disproportionality has culminated with its recommendation of an unprecedented 41-month prison sentence," defense attorney Ryan D. Kashfian argued in court papers filed last week. He said that sentence is nearly the same that would apply "had she structured to launder funds for terrorists or a drug cartel."

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, who has postponed several sentencing dates, has not scheduled a new one.

There was no mention of 1-800-GET-THIN during Cindy Omidi's trial. Instead, testimony focused on her purchase of money orders at post offices in West Los Angeles between 2008 and 2010.

Postal workers are required to take reports of any money order purchases of $3,000 or above in order to prevent money laundering. Prosecutors argued during last year's trial that Omidi bought 93 money orders for $2,900 between 2008 and 2010.

It is against the law to structure money order purchases in an amount to avoid scrutiny.

The 1-800-GET-THIN ads promoted the Lap-Band device, a silicone ring that is surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating and help people lose weight.

The marketing campaign was highly effective, with thousands of overweight patients seeking surgeries at clinics throughout Southern California. The ads were attacked by health officials as misleading and were pulled in 2012.

Five patients died following surgeries at clinics affiliated with the ad campaign, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and other public records.

Several law enforcement agencies have been investigating the owners of the businesses behind the ad campaign for possible healthcare fraud, money laundering and tax violations, according to court filings and prosecutors' statements in related court cases.

No charges have been filed, but prosecutors said in an April court hearing that the investigation was ongoing. Last year, federal agents seized $109 million in cash and securities as part of the investigation.

An attorney who represents Cindy Omidi and her sons said the seizure was unjustified.

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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