By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — An FBI videotape of a meeting between Marion County officials and the doctor who operates an Ocala abortion clinic may be admitted as evidence in the doctor’s upcoming extortion trial, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary R. Jones ruled against a motion by attorneys for Dr. James Scott Pendergraft and his co-defendant, Michael Spielvogel, to suppress the videotape of the meeting at which Pendergraft and Spielvogel allegedly threatened to bankrupt Marion County by asking for a $100 million jury verdict in Pendergraft’s civil suit against the county.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel’s lawyers asked Jones to rule out the videotape under a section of U.S. law that prohibits statements made in civil settlement conferences from being used later in criminal matters under certain circumstances. Jones ruled that the statements made by Pendergraft and Spielvogel on the tape didn’t meet the criteria for exclusion under that rule.
Jones, however, didn’t rule out the possibility that U.S. Senior District Judge William Terrell Hodges could exclude part or all of the tape when the case comes to trial, under standard rules of evidence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux also raised the possibility that Pendergraft could be facing more criminal charges in Orlando, an allegation Pendergraft and his attorneys denied afterward.
“We know nothing about that,” said Pendergraft’s attorney, Jacob Rose.
Devereaux raised the issue in regard to Spielvogel’s attorney, Daniel Brodersen. Devereaux alleged that Brodersen represents Pendergraft in a pending criminal matter in Orlando, and that could compromise his defense of Spielvogel. Saying the investigation is still pending and no charges have been filed against Pendergraft in Orlando, Devereaux declined to be more specific in open court. He could not be reached for comment after the hearing.
In addition to the Ocala facility, Pendergraft operates abortion clinics in Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach.
Brodersen later said he doesn’t currently represent Pendergraft in any criminal matter. Pendergraft and Spielvogel declined to comment. Pendergraft’s spokeswoman, Marti MacKenzie, called Devereaux’s comments part of a “witch hunt” and a “smear campaign.”
“If they can’t pull a rabbit out of their hat, they’re going to pull a rat out of their hat,” MacKenzie said. “I think it’s entirely inappropriate that he would bring something up in open court.”
Pendergraft and Spielvogel, his Orlando-based real estate advisor, were indicted on June 13. The five-count indictment alleges that Pendergraft and Spielvogel conspired to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government by making false and fraudulent statements in a civil lawsuit Pendergraft filed in December 1998. Hodges dismissed that suit last December.
The criminal indictment alleges Pendergraft and Spielvogel lied in that suit by saying County Commissioner Larry Cretul threatened Spielvogel and the clinic. The indictment also alleges that Pendergraft and Spielvogel, through attorney Roy Lucas, threatened to bankrupt the county with a $100 million lawsuit.
Cretul and Virgil “Bill” Wright, who was acting as the county’s attorney for the civil suit, agreed to meet with Pendergraft and Spielvogel in March, 1999, at the request of the FBI. Devereaux argued that the meeting wasn’t actually a settlement meeting for the civil suit because Cretul and the county would not settle, and would not have met with Pendergraft and Spielvogel without the FBI request.
Attorneys for Pendergraft and Spielvogel argued that their clients met in good faith with the county officials to try to settle Pendergraft’s lawsuit, and that the tape therefore couldn’t be used.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel are both charged with conspiracy to commit extortion, lying under oath and mail fraud. Spielvogel faces additional charges of offering false testimony and making false statements to FBI investigators. Both men pleaded not guilty July 6.
If convicted, Pendergraft faces up to 30 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, while Spielvogel could face up to 40 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines.
The case is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 5, but Jones noted Monday that it’s likely to be delayed due to motions by both sides. Pendergraft and Spielvogel’s attorneys also have filed motions for outright dismissal, and to move the trial to Orlando. Hodges is expected to rule on those motions sometime this week.