By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — Michael Spielvogel told Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul in 1997 that Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV wouldn’t open an abortion clinic in Ocala if the county paid Spielvogel and Pendergraft $500,000 for the property, Cretul testified Wednesday.
As a result of that conversation, the FBI began an investigation of Pendergraft and Spielvogel nearly a year before the Ocala Women’s Center opened and more than a year before Pendergraft filed suit against Marion County and the city of Ocala.
Cretul was the first witness called to testify in Pendergraft and Spielvogel’s extortion trial in federal court. He spent about four hours on the witness stand Wednesday and was expected to return for more testimony when the trial continues this morning.
Spielvogel called Cretul after county commissioners voted, in October 1997, to send a one-paragraph letter to Pendergraft urging him to reconsider his plans to open a clinic in Ocala. Because Cretul was commission chairman, he signed the letter.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel were indicted in federal court last June, in a five-count indictment that alleges the two men conspired to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government by making false and fraudulent statements in a lawsuit Pendergraft filed in December 1998.
Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges dismissed that lawsuit a year later because Pendergraft and attorney Roy Lucas failed to pursue it. Hodges is presiding over the criminal trial.
The indictment alleges Pendergraft and Spielvogel lied in the lawsuit by saying Cretul threatened Spielvogel and the clinic. The indictment also alleges that Pendergraft and Spielvogel, through attorney Roy Lucas, threatened to bankrupt the county by asking for a $100 million judgment.
While the indictment only refers to acts allegedly committed between While the indictment only refers to acts allegedly committed between February 1999 and March 2000, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux said the conspiracy between Pendergraft and Spielvogel started with the 1997 telephone call.
Within two days of Spielvogel’s initial phone call, Cretul took the matter to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, which in turn referred him to the local office of the FBI. Special Agent Pamela Piersanti asked Cretul to help the agency investigate.
Under Piersanti’s direction, Cretul taped every subsequent conversation he had with Spielvogel, without Spielvogel’s knowledge. Spielvogel’s lawyer, Daniel Brodersen, objected to the introduction of tapes made before February 1999, but Hodges allowed prosecutors to play them.
On the first tape, from a call made in November 1997, Cretul asked Spielvogel what can be done about Pendergraft’s plan to open an Ocala facility.
“Buy the building from me,” Spielvogel responded. “I can make a nice profit.”
Later in the conversation, Spielvogel said Pendergraft will not put a clinic anywhere in Marion County if the price is right.
“I can represent to you, we will not even come into the county,” Spielvogel said.
Soon afterward, he made a specific dollar suggestion to Cretul.
“We’re in there for about $300,000,” Spielvogel said. “If I got half a million, I could say (to Pendergraft) ‘You keep a hundred (thousand), and I keep a hundred (thousand).’ “
On the same tape, Spielvogel denied what he was asking for was extortion.
“It’s not a matter of pay or don’t pay,” he said. “Just buy the building. It’s not a matter of payoff or extortion.”
On a tape made Jan. 29, 1998, Spielvogel told Cretul that Pendergraft was “livid” in response to letters and petitions from Marion County churches asking him not to open in Ocala.
On that tape, Spielvogel suggested Cretul meet with Ocala church leaders and members and have the churches raise the money to buy out Pendergraft.
“Why don’t you call ’em and say, ‘Listen, there’s a solution’?” Spielvogel said.
Spielvogel raised the issue of violence during the conversation, which took place hours after a Birmingham, Ala., clinic was firebombed. That bombing killed an off-duty police officer and critically wounded a nurse.
“If anybody threatens me, I’ll tell you what, they’re going to get it back,” Spielvogel said. “He (Pendergraft) is not going to go away. He’s not going to be scared away. If there’s any bombs or murders or any of that bullshit stuff, the feds are going to be on top of it.”
Cretul didn’t threaten Spielvogel during any of the taped conversations played Wednesday and didn’t mention the Birmingham incident during the January 1998 call.
Half an hour after that call ended, Spielvogel called the Tampa FBI office and said Cretul had threatened him, warned him that the Ocala clinic would be firebombed and implied that Spielvogel’s wife would not be safe in Ocala.
On the Jan. 29, 1998, tape, only Spielvogel mentioned Mary Spielvogel, saying she was an administrator for Pendergraft who would be training people in Ocala.
The FBI eventually concluded that Spielvogel’s complaint was unfounded. An affidavit he filed in the Pendergraft civil suit saying Cretul threatened him is the basis for two counts against him and one count against Pendergraft.
Pendergraft’s attorneys, Jacob Rose and Michael Colleton, argued Pendergraft was not aware of Spielvogel’s actions and that the only conspiracy was one by the government to frame Pendergraft because of his line of work.
“It all centers around just one single event in terms of the conspiracy that is charged,” Rose said in his opening statement. “Dr. Pendergraft is being persecuted for what he does as a doctor.”
Rose also sought to disassociate Pendergraft from Spielvogel, saying Spielvogel worked as an independent contractor, not as an employee of Pendergraft.
“Michael Spielvogel was not involved in any way whatsoever in any plan to come to Ocala,” Rose said.
At the start of the day, Hodges admonished Pendergraft for being a few minutes late to court.
“This is two mornings in a row that you’ve been a few minutes late, sir,” Hodges said. “I think you need to pay some attention to your situation.” Hodges threatened to have Pendergraft taken into custody if he’s late a third time.
The judge also warned Pendergraft’s attorneys about a large balloon flying from the roof of the Ocala Women’s Center, less than a thousand feet from the courthouse. The balloon carries large signs reading, “Stop attacking abortion providers. Support Dr. Pendergraft.”
Hodges called for the balloon to be taken down.
“How could that be interpreted as anything other than an influence to the jury?” he said. “There are limits to free speech when it comes to the trial of a criminal case. This borders on obstruction of justice.”
Rose told the court before 10 a.m. that the balloon would be taken down immediately, but it still rested on the clinic roof when the trial recessed for the day at 4:45 p.m.
Both Pendergraft and Spielvogel are 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.
If convicted, Pendergraft faces up to 30 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, while Spielvogel could face up to 40 years and $1.25 million in fines.
The trial was scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. today.