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Jury Hears Taped Pitch To Make Deal

By Editorial Staff
Published January 5, 2001

“For $1 Million You Get Me Off Your Back,” Dr. James Pendergraft Said To A Top Marion County Official.

By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez of The Sentinel Staff

OCALA — Nearly three years ago, Dr. James Pendergraft telephoned the chairman of the Marion County Commission and offered to relocate his proposed abortion clinic.

But at a price.

For $500,000, the Orlando abortion physician promised to stay away from Ocala for three years. For $750,000 he would vanish for five years. But for $1 million he would pledge never to come back. He repeated the proposition three times.

“I can tell you, this is no extortion. It’s a business deal,” Pendergraft said during a 1998 phone call played for jurors Thursday in the doctor’s federal trial on extortion conspiracy and other charges. “No doubt about it, you’ll never hear from me again.”

To Pendergraft, the suggested fees represented the cost of the $195,000 clinic building on Pine Street, his investment in the property and the loss of future income there.

“It’s not the building you’re getting rid of. For $1 million you get me off your back,” the doctor said.

The conversation was one of several Pendergraft and Orlando real-estate adviser Michael Spielvogel had with County Commission Chairman Larry Cretul between October 1997 and April 1998 after the chairman sent Pendergraft a letter asking him to reconsider plans for his Ocala clinic. Cretul called in the FBI, which recorded a number of calls and launched an investigation.

Pendergraft, 43, and Spielvogel, 54, are charged with conspiracy, attempted extortion and mail fraud. Prosecutors say that during a March 1999 meeting with a county attorney, taped by the FBI, Pendergraft and Spielvogel said they would seek $100 million in damages unless the county settled a lawsuit over problems with hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers to guard the clinic.

Spielvogel faces additional charges of filing a false document and lying to the FBI about threats supposedly made as the clinic was about to open in 1998. Spielvogel alleged that Cretul said it was a matter of when, not if, the clinic would be firebombed. Pendergraft filed an affidavit supporting Spielvogel in 1999.

Both men contend they did nothing wrong. If convicted, prison sentences could total 30 years for Pendergraft, 40 years for Spielvogel.

Cretul, the U.S. government’s main witness, took the stand for about seven hours Thursday. But part of the time was spent listening to Pendergraft talk on tape about how much money he would lose if he didn’t open up in Ocala.

In a March 1998 call, Pendergraft said he was filling a “void” by coming to Ocala, where the last abortion clinic was firebombed in 1989, and he could make at least $1 million a year in the new facility.

He also tried to reassure Cretul that he would minimize publicity and not draw attention to the deal, which he said could be “written down in a lawyer’s contract” to make it “the least public as possible.”

In a second conversation in April 1998, Cretul inquired about the method of payment. “Did you have something in mind? A check? All at one time? A brown paper bag?”

“No. That doesn’t look good,” said Pendergraft before starting to laugh. “I have my own reputation to keep up and that’s not doing dirty work.”

Pendergraft suggested there was mounting pressure to either establish the clinic or give up the project because of growing opposition from Ocala church leaders

Under questioning by defense lawyers, Cretul discussed his opposition to abortion.

“I am pro-life with exceptions such as incest, rape and dangers to the mother,” he told Dan Brodersen, a former assistant U.S. attorney serving as Spielvogel’s lawyer.

The county chairman also admitted lying under the direction of an FBI agent when he canceled a face-to-face meeting with Spielvogel.

The chairman, a Navy veteran and homebuilder by profession, testified he saw nothing wrong in having the county commission write a letter to Pendergraft asking that he reconsider opening up in Ocala.

“It was the appropriate thing to ask that Dr. Pendergraft reconsider,” Cretul said under questioning by Jacob Rose, a Pendergraft attorney. At the time, Pendergraft had received about 20 negative letters from church leaders and other anti-abortion activists.

One of the pastors writing to Pendergraft in 1997 was the Rev. Ed Johnson of Ocala’s First Baptist Church, which Cretul attends. The chairman said he was not aware of a letter Johnson wrote Pendergraft, but he did see anti-clinic literature from other groups.

Some of those complaints arrived at the County Commission, which discussed the proposed clinic during a meeting in October 1997. At the urging of a citizen who spoke up, Cretul testified, the commission voted 5-0 to draft and send the letter.

Much of the testimony until now has centered on what Spielvogel and Cretul discussed in their initial, unrecorded conversation in 1997, during which both allege threats were made. Cretul testified Wednesday that it was Spielvogel who made inflammatory remarks.

The chairman’s handwritten notes of that call were questioned Thursday by Brodersen, who asked why had he not jotted down the threats.

“I couldn’t write as fast as Michael was talking,” Cretul said.


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The Four Keys to the Millennium (Book)

Foundations in Biblical Eschatology

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All Christians believe that their great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will one day return. Although we cannot know the exact time of His return, what exactly did Jesus mean when he spoke of the signs of His coming (Mat. 24)? How are we to interpret the prophecies in Isaiah regarding the time when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:19)? Should we expect a time of great tribulation and apostasy or revival and reformation before the Lord returns? Is the devil bound now, and are the saints reigning with Christ? Did you know that there are four hermeneutical approaches to the book of Daniel and Revelation?

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“Give me liberty or give me death!”

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The freedom our Founders envisioned was not freedom from suffering, want, or hard work. Nor was it freedom to indulge every appetite or whim without restraint—that would merely be servitude to a different master. No, the Founders’ passion was to live free before God, unfettered by the chains of autocracy, shackles that slowly but inexorably bind men when the governments they fashion fail to recognize and uphold freedom’s singular, foundational truth: that all men are created in the image of God, and are thereby co-equally endowed with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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Dr. Francis Schaeffer - A Christian Manifesto (DVD)

That Swiss Hermit Strikes Again!

Dr. Schaeffer, who was one of the most influential Christian thinkers in the twentieth century, shows that secular humanism has displaced the Judeo-Christian consensus that once defined our nation’s moral boundaries. Law, education, and medicine have all been reshaped for the worse as a consequence. America’s dominant worldview changed, Schaeffer charges, when Christians weren’t looking.

Schaeffer lists two reasons for evangelical indifference: a false concept of spirituality and fear. He calls on believers to stand against the tyranny and moral chaos that come when humanism reigns-and warns that believers may, at some point, be forced to make the hard choice between obeying God or Caesar. A Christian Manifesto is a thought-provoking and bracing Christian analysis of American culture and the obligation Christians have to engage the culture with the claims of Christ.

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Go Stand Speak (DVD)

With “preaching to the lost” being such a basic foundation of Christianity, why do many in the church seem to be apathetic on this issue of preaching in highways and byways of towns and cities?

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Does the Bible really call church pastors, leaders and evangelists to proclaim the gospel in the public square as part of obedience to the Great Commission, or is public preaching something that is outdated and not applicable for our day and age?

These any many other questions are answered in this documentary.

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