By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — Conspiracy, lies and audiotapes were the source of debate on Monday at the federal extortion trial of Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV and Michael Spielvogel.
Pendergraft is the owner of the Ocala Women’s Center on North Pine Avenue, a clinic that, among other procedures, offers abortion services. He also operates other clinics in Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
The day began with Pendergraft and Spielvogel’s attorneys questioning the propriety of Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul’s review over the weekend of transcripts of telephone calls between himself and Pendergraft or Spielvogel.
Cretul had secretly taped the calls at the direction of FBI agents investigating Pendergraft and Spielvogel.
From the witness stand, Cretul acknowledged that he had reviewed the transcripts on Sunday, and had spoken with FBI Special Agent Pamela Piersanti.
Although witnesses at the trial are prohibited from talking with each other, Piersanti is exempt from that rule because she is the FBI case agent handling the case.
“I’m sure that we didn’t talk about the testimony that I was about to give,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux objected to the defense attorneys’ contention that Cretul might have done something improper.
“Counsel is clearly trying to suggest some type of wrongdoing,” he said. “There’s no basis for that.”
A knee injury sustained in the courtroom during a power failure Friday didn’t slow down Pendergraft attorney Jacob Rose’s rapid-fire barrage of questions in cross-examining Cretul. Starting promptly at 9 a.m., Rose made his way on crutches to a stool at the courtroom lectern facing the witness stand.
Sitting at the lectern throughout the day, Rose quizzed Cretul on virtually every aspect of his taped conversations with Pendergraft, demanding to know Cretul’s motives.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel were indicted 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, after Pendergraft and attorney Roy Lucas failed to pursue it.
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 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 also faces 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.
Rose spent much of the day Monday questioning Cretul’s motivations and asking whether he had a personal interest in seeing Pendergraft arrested. Cretul testified last week that he personally opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the woman.
Rose asked Cretul if he expected Pendergraft to say something incriminating during one of the taped calls.
“I had no desire for him to say it,” Cretul responded. “In fact, I was hoping he wouldn’t.”
Throughout much of the day, Cretul repeated that he was doing as he was told by Piersanti, a rationale he has used often since first taking the witness stand last Wednesday.
Cretul acknowledged he lied to Pendergraft in the taped conversations, on Piersanti’s instructions, about the possibility of the county or someone else paying Pendergraft not to open a clinic in Ocala.
“If you were not expecting him to say anything incriminating, why on God’s earth did you lie to him time after time?” Rose asked.
“At the direction of the FBI, sir,” Cretul responded. “If you want to characterize it as a lie, fine, but I was doing what I was told to do.”
Rose asked Cretul repeatedly about lying to Pendergraft, to the point that Hodges intervened.
“Mr. Rose, I think the subject of this cross-examination has been exhausted,” Hodges said. “(Cretul) has admitted he lied. I suggest you move on to another subject.”
Cretul and Pendergraft had their last recorded conversation on April 8, 1998. Rose asked why records of Cretul’s cell phone calls showed several later conversations with FBI agent Piersanti. Rose wanted to know what Piersanti and Cretul discussed during those calls.
“It may well have been why there may have been a black Mercedes sitting in front of my father’s house taking pictures,” Cretul responded. “I was told to report any unusual situations that might occur, possibly for my personal safety.”
Cretul explained that his father had confronted a man outside his home one day who was taking pictures. The man said he was taking pictures “for a friend,” then sped off, Cretul said.
Toward the end of Cretul’s testimony, Rose touched on the heart of two of the government’s charges, the affidavits Spielvogel and Pendergraft filed in the civil case.
In his affidavit, Spielvogel alleged that Cretul made threats against the clinic and Spielvogel’s wife. In his own affidavit, Pendergraft swore he believed Spielvogel was telling the truth because Spielvogel had told him about having such a conversation with Cretul.
Under questioning by Rose, Cretul said he had no knowledge about what Pendergraft might have believed but said he never made any threats.
Cretul’s testimony concluded at 3:50 p.m. Monday, after 3 days on the witness stand. The trial is scheduled to continue this morning.