“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.