By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — The federal extortion trial of Michael Spielvogel and Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV turned into a lawyers’ duel Wednesday.
Local attorney Virgil “Bill” Wright III spent the day on the witness stand, nearly all of it under cross-examination by Pendergraft attorney Jacob Rose.
The atmosphere between Wright and Rose grew tense with Rose’s first question.
“You were influenced by your opposition to abortion, correct?” Rose asked.
Despite Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux’s objection that the question wasn’t relevant, Wright eventually answered that he opposes abortion and, in response to a later question, that he is a member of the First Baptist Church of Ocala. County Commission Chairman Larry Cretul, the first prosecution witness, also is a member of that church.
Pendergraft owns the Ocala Women’s Center and four other abortion clinics in the state.
Rose and Wright clashed repeatedly in their views about the case.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel were indicted last June, in a five-count indictment alleging they conspired to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government by making false and fraudulent statements in a civil lawsuit filed by Pendergraft in December 1998.
Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges dismissed the lawsuit year later, after Pendergraft and attorney Roy Lucas failed to pursue it. Hodges also is presiding over the criminal trial.
The indictment alleges Pendergraft and Spielvogel lied by saying Cretul threatened Spielvogel and the clinic.
Wright testified Tuesday that Lucas sent him copies of sworn affidavits by Spielvogel and Pendergraft saying Cretul threatened Spielvogel in a telephone conversation. Spielvogel’s affidavit said Cretul threatened the clinic, Spielvogel and Spielvogel’s wife, a clinic employee.
What Spielvogel and Pendergraft didn’t know was that Cretul had gone to the FBI after he received a call from Spielvogel months earlier and that the FBI was secretly taping conversations between Cretul and either of the two men.
Cretul did place a call to Spielvogel on Jan. 29, 1998, about 12 hours after an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., was firebombed.
According to Spielvogel’s affidavit, Cretul said, “what happened in Alabama would be nothing compared to what would happen in Ocala.”
Pendergraft’s affidavit said he believed Spielvogel because he was in the room when Spielvogel repeated the alleged threats from Cretul as Cretul made them.
After talking with FBI Special Agent Pamela Piersanti about Cretul’s involvement, Wright agreed to a meeting in his office, which the FBI secretly videotaped.
On Tuesday, Devereaux played a videotape of that March 22, 1999, meeting between Wright, Spielvogel, Pendergraft and Lucas. On that tape, Lucas spoke of solving the firebombings of an Ocala abortion clinic in 1989.
“That’s the real challenge of the case, is to solve the firebombings and bankrupt the county,” Lucas said.
Rose aggressively quizzed Wright throughout the day Wednesday, asking his motives in scheduling the meeting.
“They (Pendergraft, Spielvogel and Lucas) lied to get me into what you call a settlement conference and what I’d call an opportunity to further their criminal enterprise,” Wright said.
Rose asked Wright if he wasn’t lying, too, by having the meeting with no intention of negotiating a settlement. Rose raised the issue of whether it might have been better for the county to file for a dismissal of the case instead of scheduling the meeting. Wright acknowledged it might have been, in an ordinary case.
“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” Rose nearly shouted at one point.
Wright responded that he was cooperating with the FBI, not negotiating anything.
Much of the interaction between Rose and Wright was repetitive, to the extent that shortly after 4 p.m., Hodges asked Rose what point he was trying to make.
“Mr. Rose, I’ve been listening to about 3 hours of cross-examination, which, to me, is pointless,” Hodges said outside the presence of the jury. “If this line continues on the way it’s been proceeding this afternoon, I’m going to suggest you find another line of questioning, and if you are unable to do that, I’m going to suggest that you terminate your cross-examination.”
Rose finished his questioning, Wright left the witness stand and Hodges recessed the trial for the day.
A juror who was injured in a fall during the court’s lunch break Tuesday returned to the courtroom Wednesday morning. The woman had fallen outside a downtown restaurant, striking her head. She was treated at a local hospital Tuesday afternoon.
Also Wednesday, several local ministers, all of whom oppose abortion, filed a motion to quash subpoenas from Pendergraft and Spielvogel’s lawyers. The group includes the Rev. Edward Johnson, pastor at First Baptist. Hodges had not ruled on the motion by Wednesday afternoon.
The trial is scheduled to resume this morning.