James Pendergraft Is Accused Of Trying To Extort Money From Marion County
By Lynne Bumpus-Hooper of The Sentinel Staff
JACKSONVILLE — An Orlando abortion doctor who sued in federal court for protection from anti-abortion activists has been charged with trying to extort money from the Marion County Commission.
To abortion-rights activists, the federal indictment of Dr. James Pendergraft and his consultant Michael Spielvogel is chilling.
“We’ve gotten so little from the Department of Justice in the past that any naivete I had of justice for American women is gone,” said Patricia Windle, past owner of a Melbourne clinic and an outspoken advocate for abortion rights.
Abortion opponents hailed the move. They called the indictment, which may be the first of its kind against a clinic operator, a “wake-up call” for Pendergraft. He owns five abortion clinics, including one in Orlando.
“We hope Dr. Pendergraft and Michael Spielvogel feel indicted by God almighty and that Dr. Pendergraft will heed this and put his doctoring skills to good use caring for women and their babies,” said the Rev. Ed Martin, a vocal abortion opponent in Ocala.
The indictment, issued by a federal grand jury last week, alleges that Pendergraft and Spielvogel “authored false, fictitious and libelous affidavits” as part of their 1998 civil suit against Ocala. The extortion, the indictment says, came in their attempt to get money from Marion County through a court settlement of that suit, which eventually was tossed out of court.
The indictment says the two lied about threats they said were directed at them by Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul when they announced plans to open an abortion facility in Ocala in 1998.
Pendergraft was not arrested. Instead he will be given a notice to appear in federal court sometime in the near future, officials said. Prosecutors in Jacksonville handling the case would not comment.
Cretul said Wednesday prosecutors have told him not to discuss the case because he will be a witness at the trial.
A spokeswoman for Pendergraft said the allegations are false.
“They are a distortion at a minimum and outright lies at the maximum. Dr. Pendergraft is completely innocent, and he will fight this fight as he has fought others,” Marti McKenzie said.
McKenzie said Ocala had been a “hostile environment” for Pendergraft from the moment he announced the clinic’s opening. She said the Ocala facility would continue to operate.
Spielvogel could not be reached for comment.
Pendergraft filed a federal civil suit against Orlando in 1996 to ward off an attempt to prevent second-trimester abortions at his clinic there. The suit was settled out of court for $325,000.
Nationally, the indictment was called frightening by people who support abortion rights.
“Abortion providers face so many obstacles and sources of fear that the last thing they need is having a prosecutor come down on them while they are seeking assistance,” said Betsy Cavendish, vice president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
Cavendish said there have been seven slayings and 16 attempted slayings at clinics nationally during the past decade.
In Ocala, the main goal of Pendergraft’s original civil suit was to obtain the right to hire off-duty police officers for security at the facility.
An abortion clinic was burned in Ocala in 1989, and Pendergraft said he wanted to prevent any violence at his facility.
He was successful with that request, but the suit was eventually dropped because of inaction on other issues, including whether to create a buffer zone for protesters around the clinic.