NEW ORLEANS — Former New Orleans Saints football star Joe Horn was given three years of federal probation Wednesday after pleading guilty in Lexington, Kentucky, to defrauding a health care program for retired National Football League players, according to his attorney.
Horn’s punishment — handed to him by U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell — was well below the 10- to a 16-month prison sentence that federal prosecutors had requested in writing ahead of his sentencing hearing. The sentence also closes the book on a nearly two-year legal saga that ensnared one of the most colorful characters in Saints history, who acknowledged falling on hard times and bilking $149,775 in fake claims submitted through the Gene Upshaw NFL Player Health Reimbursement plan, administered in Lexington.
Horn’s attorney, Robert Beeman, called his client’s sentence “a very good outcome” during a brief telephone interview after court let out.
“We’re obviously pleased,” Beeman said.
Horn was also ordered to serve at least 200 hours of community service, Beeman added. Other probation conditions weren't immediately available, but Beeman said Horn won’t have to pay any restitution because he has already “repaid every nickel he took.”
Court records that prosecutors filed ahead of Wednesday's sentencing alluded to Horn’s remarkable life story. He was the son of an abusive and alcoholic father, was raised in North Carolina by his mother and maternal grandmother, and parlayed a stint at Mississippi’s Itawamba Community College into an 11-year NFL career that began in 1996.
The wide receiver played several seasons for Kansas City and joined the Saints in 2000, contributing to New Orleans teams that had the club’s first playoff victory in 2000 and reached its first-ever conference championship game in 2006, the year after the federal levee failures during Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city.
Horn set team receiving records for the Saints, punctuating many of his catches with flamboyant, herky-jerky dance moves. Nicknamed "Hollywood," he earned multiple Pro Bowl appearances and authored one of the franchise’s most memorable moments when he celebrated a touchdown during a 2003 primetime game by pulling hidden cellphone from beneath the goalposts. He held it up to his ear and pretended to call his son, Jaycee, who now plays cornerback for the Carolina Panthers.
After playing one season with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 and retiring, Horn began dealing with “lingering effects from … concussions suffered during his NFL career,” prosecutors wrote in an Oct. 18 memo. He coached junior college football and developed and sold a barbecue sauce named “Bayou 87,” which paid homage to his jersey number with the Saints.
Yet he struggled financially and began submitting false claims to the Upshaw plan, which provided tax-free reimbursements for out-of-pocket medical costs that were not covered by insurance for former players, their spouses or dependents, prosecutors said.
A former Chiefs teammate, Tamarick Vanover, approached Horn in 2018 and offered to help him make even more money from the retirement plan in exchange for a kickback. Horn accepted, letting Vanover and former fellow NFL receiver Donald “Reche” Caldwell successfully submit a claim on his behalf for $52,000.
Horn paid $11,000 of that back to Vanover and then sent fake claims on his own behalf for the remaining $97,775 that he ripped off from the program, prosecutors said.
Horn, Vanover and Reche Caldwell were among 10 retired NFL players charged in December 2019 with scamming the Upshaw plan.
Horn pleaded guilty that same month to conspiracy to commit health care fraud. At the time, he issued an apology to his friends, family and fans, saying, “Unfortunately, we do not get to determine the consequences of ill-advised decisions.”
In the days leading up to Horn's sentencing, a certified public accountant from Mandeville wrote to Judge Karen Caldwell and pleaded for leniency on behalf of the ex-Saints star, according to a letter filed in court.
Maureen O'Rourke wrote in the letter that she met Horn early in his Saints tenure while she worked as the chief financial officer of a fitness facility in Mandeville. A summer camp hosted by the facility had brought about 70 children between the ages of 5 and 12 to watch a Saints training camp practice, but the session was rained out, leaving many of the kids in tears.
The buses were getting ready to pull away when Horn approached and saved the day by offering shirts, balls, helmets and any other gear that the children wanted him to autograph, O'Rourke said.
"I will never forget Joe's unselfish kindness that day," wrote O'Rourke, who said she sent with letter without ever speaking to either Horn or Beeman. "He would better serve the community in some type of service versus time spent in a jail cell.
"He touched many hearts that day, including mine."
A total of 14 other people have pleaded guilty as part of the case. Reche Caldwell had pleaded not guilty before he was shot dead late last year during a robbery.
Some of those who pleaded guilty were sentenced to house arrest or between two months to more than a year in prison.
Horn is a member of both the Saints and Louisiana Sports Halls of Fame.