James Pendergraft: “I Am Not A Criminal”

The Lawyer For The Abortion Provider Said The Federal Case Is “All About Abortion”

By Lynne Bumpus-Hooper of The Sentinel Staff

OCALA — An abortion doctor said Thursday that he is innocent of federal extortion charges, and one of his attorneys said the fight is “all about abortion.”

Dr. James Pendergraft and his former business partner, Michael Spielvogel, appeared in federal court to enter not-guilty pleas to charges of extortion, mail fraud and scheming to defraud the government. Both are free pending trial.

In a news conference before the hearing, Pendergraft said all he wants to do is go on with life as usual.

“I am not a criminal,” he said.

The two were indicted last month by a federal grand jury on the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and nearly $1 million in fines. Spielvogel faces two additional charges of lying to FBI agents and knowingly making false statements.

But Jacob Rose, a West Palm Beach attorney representing Pendergraft, said the doctor was targeted because he runs five clinics that provide abortions in Florida, including two in Orlando and one in Ocala.

Rose and Pendergraft said Ocala was a hostile atmosphere from the moment the Ocala Women’s Clinic opened two years ago.

“This is all about abortion. You know that,” Rose said after the hearing before U.S. Magistrate Gary Jones.

The indictment alleges the two men made false statements about threats directed at them. The government contends the two were trying to extort money from Marion County through a settlement of a civil suit they had filed.

But Rose said the two men were only seeking protection for their patients.

“He wanted free access to the clinic for his patients, security and no harassment. He wasn’t after money,” Rose said of Pendergraft.

Pendergraft filed the lawsuit against anti-abortion demonstrators in December 1998 asking that they be kept back from his facility. The suit also named law enforcement and asked for measures to increase security at the clinic.

The federal indictment says Spielvogel lied about a telephone conversation with Larry Cretul, a Marion County commissioner. Spielvogel said Cretul made threats that scared him. He reported those threats to Pendergraft and the FBI.

The threats included references to two former abortion clinics in Ocala that had burned, Spielvogel said.

Larry Colleton, Pendergraft’s other attorney, said this was the first U.S. case in which a doctor who provides abortions had faced such charges.

“It is unusual, unprecedented. I could find no cases that reflect this one in my research,” said Colleton, a former U.S. attorney.

The federal investigation has been ongoing for more than a year. The civil suit was dismissed earlier this year for lack of action, but after a preliminary injunction was granted last year granting some of Pendergraft’s requests for more security.

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