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Pendergraft sentenced to 46 months, 5/25/2001

By Editorial Staff
Published May 25, 2001

By Rick Cunduff Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner

OCALA — Abortion provider Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV was sentenced Thursday to nearly four years in prison on federal charges of attempted extortion, conspiracy and mail fraud.

Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges sentenced Pendergraft to 46 months, to be followed by two years of supervised release. He also fined Pendergraft $25,000.

Hodges sentenced Pendergraft’s associate, Michael Spielvogel, to 41 months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Hodges could have sentenced both men to 51 months in prison and fined them up to $75,000 each.

Lawyers for Pendergraft and Spielvogel both filed motions of appeal. Hodges allowed them to remain free on bond while they appeal their convictions to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pendergraft owns the Ocala Women’s Center and four other Florida clinics which provide abortions and other reproductive health services for women.

Jurors convicted Pendergraft and Spielvogel on Feb. 1 of conspiracy, attempted extortion and mail fraud. Spielvogel also was convicted of filing a false affidavit and making false statements to the FBI.

The usually flamboyant Pendergraft and his equally outspoken lawyers had little to say as they left the courthouse following the sentencing.

“Hopefully, the case will be reversed on appeal,” said Bruce Rogow, the lawyer who will handle Pendergraft’s appeal. He declined to comment further on the case, other than to praise Hodges’ decision to follow sentencing guidelines.

Pendergraft’s five clinics will remain open, spokeswoman Marti Mackenzie said.

Pendergraft made no comment after the hearing. Spielvogel praised Hodges’ fairness.

“I just think Judge Hodges is an honorable judge,” Spielvogel said after the hearing. “I think he’s great, and fair.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux declined to comment.

Security at the Golden-Collum Federal Building was exceptionally tight for the three-hour hearing, with U.S. Marshals, Federal Protective Service officers and Ocala police surrounding the building. Armed sharpshooters patrolled nearby rooftops as the hearing began.

Inside the windowless courtroom, about 60 spectators, including both supporters of abortion rights and opponents of abortion, filled the wooden benches. Marshals guarded every entrance to the room once the hearing had begun.

Melbourne-based abortion opponent Meredith Rainey said afterward the case had nothing to do with abortion.

“Then why are you here?” two Pendergraft supporters responded in unison.

Pendergraft, 43, and Spielvogel, 54, were indicted last summer. Prosecutors alleged the two men had attempted to extort money from Marion County at a 1999 meeting of Spielvogel, Pendergraft, his then-lawyer Roy Lucas and Virgil “Bill” Wright III, a lawyer representing the county. Pendergraft had filed a lawsuit three months earlier, after then-Sheriff Ken Ergle and Ocala Police Chief Morrey Deen refused to allow their off-duty officers to work as security guards at the Pine Avenue clinic.

At that meeting, Spielvogel alleged County Commission Chairman Larry Cretul had threatened him, his wife — who works for Pendergraft — and the clinic, during a telephone call. Spielvogel first made the claim in an affidavit filed a month before the meeting.

Pendergraft filed a second affidavit supporting Spielvogel’s version of events. Unknown to both men, the FBI had recorded calls between each of them and Cretul. The agency also videotaped the March 1999 meeting.

On the videotape, Lucas sought a settlement from the county, noting that an Oregon jury had recently awarded a $107 million verdict against the anti-abortion “Nuremberg Files” Web site. (That verdict was recently overturned on appeal.)

At the meeting, Pendergraft vowed to bankrupt the county if necessary and put a statue of himself in the center of town saying he “brought freedom to Ocala.”

In January, Spielvogel admitted on the witness stand that no telephone conversation took place in which Cretul made the threats Spielvogel claimed.

Hodges rejected some claims made by the prosecution Thursday, including Devereaux’s contention that Cretul was a victim in the case. Cretul, who was in the courtroom for the verdict, said afterward that he didn’t agree with the judge’s decision on that point.

“Certainly, I took a lot of . . . suspicion out there, even when I couldn’t comment while the trial was going on. There are people out there who feel that I was the bad guy,” he said. “There were times when I thought I was the one on trial.”

Three of Pendergraft’s supporters spoke on his behalf at Thursday’s hearing.

“He is a dedicated physician, working seven days a week, even now,” said Dr. Sangeeta Pati, a Maryland physician who was present for nearly all of the trial. “I am honored and proud to be his friend and colleague.”

Another colleague, Dr. Andrea Vidali, spoke of Pendergraft’s dedication to work at D.C. General, a public hospital in inner-city Washington, when others chose not to.

“Dr. Pendergraft wanted to make an impact, and he did make an impact,” Vidali said.

Hodges kept the three-hour hearing moving, several times rejecting the lawyers’ requests to be heard.

“At the moment, I ask that you be seated,” he told Pendergraft lawyer Larry Colleton just before sentencing Pendergraft. “This is not an easy thing to do, Mr. Colleton, and it is made more difficult when I am interrupted by counsel.”

Before sentencing them, Hodges reflected on the cost of the conviction to both Pendergraft and Spielvogel.

“Dr. Pendergraft is 43 years of age, and at the pinnacle of what, by all accounts, is a brilliant medical career. That obviously is to be interrupted, if not completely sacrificed,” he said.

But Hodges went on to rebuke both men.

“The defendants were overtaken by their own greed. And this is a case about greed and the making of false statements in an attempt to get money to which they were not entitled,” he said. “That’s what the case is about, and that’s all it’s about and ever was about.”

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