By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV made Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul three offers in March 1998.
In a telephone conversation, Pendergraft said he would agree not to perform abortions in Marion County for three years if the county paid him $500,000.
For a $750,000 payment, he would perform no abortions in the county for five years.
And he offered not to open a clinic in Marion County at all.
“If you want a lifetime situation and you don’t want me to come to Marion County,” Pendergraft said, “it’s a million dollars.”
Unknown to Pendergraft, Cretul was secretly taping that conversation under the direction of the FBI. Federal prosecutors played that tape Thursday morning as evidence in Pendergraft’s extortion conspiracy trial.
Cretul spent a full day on the witness stand, testifying about his role in an FBI investigation of Pendergraft that started in November 1997, after Pendergraft’s co-defendant, Michael Spielvogel, called Cretul and suggested that the county buy the clinic property on North Pine Avenue. In addition to the Ocala Women’s Center, Pendergraft operates other clinics that perform abortions in Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel were indicted in federal court last June. The indictment charges the two men with conspiring 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 civil suit by saying Cretul threatened Spielvogel and the clinic. The indictment also alleges that Pendergraft and Spielvogel, through attorney Lucas, threatened to bankrupt the county by asking for a $100 million judgment.
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.
Although the indictment only covers acts allegedly committed by Pendergraft and Spielvogel between February 1999 and April 1999, prosecutors claim the earlier conversations with Cretul show the beginnings of the conspiracy.
Cretul testified about conversations he had with Spielvogel or Pendergraft between November 1997 and March 1998. Spielvogel first called Cretul in October 1997 after county commissioners voted unanimously to send a letter to Pendergraft.
The body of that letter reads, in its entirety:
“With respect to the proposed Ocala Women’s Center, we are a small family-oriented community, relatively free from controversy of the kind this might create. If there are plans in process to establish an abortion clinic in Marion County (though you are within your legal rights to do so), we hope you will reconsider them.”
Cretul testified Wednesday that Spielvogel called him about two weeks after the letter was mailed and suggested that the county or “friends of the county” buy Pendergraft’s property for $500,000. Within two days of that 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. From then on, Cretul, acting under the direction of Special Agent Pamela Piersanti, taped every conversation he had with Spielvogel or Pendergraft.
On March 26, 1998, Cretul called Pendergraft and the two began discussing the possibility of the county buying Pendergraft’s property, a matter Cretul and Spielvogel had discussed in three previous calls.
Pendergraft told Cretul he was open to a deal for varying time periods.
“I guarantee you three years, I don’t come to Marion County. I guarantee you five years, I don’t come to Marion County. Even for a lifetime, I don’t come to Marion County,” Pendergraft said on the tape. “If you want to get rid of me, we’ve got to look at a different price.”
Pendergraft reacted indignantly when Cretul said he thought the matter was nearly extortion.
“There is no extortion deal here. If you think this is extortion, then we can move on, and I can do what I propose to do,” Pendergraft said. “This has nothing to do with extortion.”
Later in the same conversation, Pendergraft told Cretul his price for not opening a clinic in Marion County would be $1 million.
“That’s not even negotiable,” he said. “You won’t have to talk to me on the phone ever again. It’ll be written down and my lawyer will give it to you. . . . If you, or the people of Ocala are very serious about me not coming there, deal with the price.”
Pendergraft later asked Cretul, “Do we have a business deal or not?”
“I didn’t expect any million dollars,” Cretul responded.
“That includes a lifetime guarantee,” Pendergraft said. “If you want a lifetime situation, and you don’t want me to come to Marion County, it’s a million dollars. . . . It’s a business situation. I can come there and make a million, two million dollars a year. Ocala is getting off very, very cheap. I’m only clearing $800,000 here.”
Pendergraft also told Cretul that he wouldn’t publicize the deal if the county wanted to keep it secret.
“I will keep my mouth absolutely sealed,” Pendergraft said.
Cretul told Pendergraft he would check people in the county to see if he could get the money. Instead, he told no one, turning the tape of the conversation over to FBI agent Piersanti.
She later told Cretul to call Pendergraft back and say there was no deal. On April 8, 1998, Cretul made the call, telling Pendergraft the county didn’t want to set a precedent and that $1 million was too much money.
“A million dollars wasn’t my final offer. Anything is negotiable,” Pendergraft responded. “Nobody came with a proposal to me. . . . Put an offer on the table if somebody’s serious.”
On cross-examination Thursday, Spielvogel’s attorney, Daniel Brodersen, questioned notes Cretul took during the first, unrecorded conversation he had with Spielvogel, noting that Cretul made no mention of violence or threats of violence. Cretul had said the prospect of violence against the clinic was part of what prompted him to go to law enforcement in the first place.
Under questioning by Brodersen, Cretul acknowledged he didn’t know what possible federal law violation the FBI was investigating. Piersanti declined to discuss the matter with him, he said.
Cretul also said he was not aware of the County Commission ever sending a similar letter to any other prospective business moving into Marion County
Pendergraft attorney Jacob Rose began his cross-examination of Cretul by aggressively questioning the commissioner’s personal beliefs on abortion.
“Did Piersanti ever ask you if you were motivated by your feelings about abortion?” Rose asked.
“The issue of my personal stand on abortion never came up,” Cretul responded.
Under further questioning from Rose, Cretul said he opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest or where necessary to protect the life of the woman.
Cretul has repeated several times throughout his testimony that he was more concerned about the potential for violence associated with an abortion clinic than with the fact that the clinic itself was coming to town.
“The issue with me was not the abortion issue,” he said. “What I had a concern about was, Mr. Spielvogel raised the issue of painting the building pink and doing other things that would attract attention to it.”
Cretul is a member of First Baptist Church of Ocala. The pastor of that church, the Rev. Edward Johnson, sent a letter to Pendergraft in early 1998, pledging to fight the clinic’s opening through “every legal means.” Rose asked Cretul if he agreed with Johnson’s position.
“My personal position on abortion is probably not as strong as Dr. Johnson’s,” Cretul responded.
The trial is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. today, with Cretul again on the witness stand.