By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — Even as Michael Spielvogel was under investigation by the FBI for allegedly trying to extort money from Marion County, he was volunteering to secretly tape Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul, to try to catch Cretul threatening him, Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV and the Ocala Women’s Center.
“I think I should be wired, going to a meeting, and let’s put these people out of business,” Spielvogel told FBI Special Agent Pamela Piersanti in February 1998. “I’m willing to work with the FBI to get them.”
Instead, Piersanti was secretly recording her call to Spielvogel as part of an investigation. Prosecutors played the tape of that conversation Thursday at Spielvogel and Pendergraft’s federal extortion trial in Ocala.
Piersanti took the witness stand Thursday.
Courtroom proceedings focused more on Spielvogel than Pendergraft. Both men face charges they conspired to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government by making fraudulent statements in a lawsuit Pendergraft filed in December 1998.
Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges, now presiding over the trial, eventually dismissed the lawsuit.
Pendergraft owns the Ocala Women’s Center and four other clinics, in Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, all of which perform abortions.
Prosecutors allege Pendergraft and Spielvogel lied in the lawsuit by saying Cretul threatened Spielvogel and the clinic.
Virgil “Bill” Wright III, the lawyer who represented the county in the lawsuit testified earlier this week that Roy Lucas, Pendergraft’s former attorney, sent him copies of affidavits by Spielvogel and Pendergraft saying Cretul had threatened Spielvogel during a phone call hours after an Alabama clinic was firebombed in 1998 In the affidavit, Spielvogel’s said Cretul told him it was a matter of “when” the Ocala clinic was firebombed and that “what happened in Alabama would be nothing compared to what would happen in Ocala.”
Piersanti, the FBI agent, said Thursday that the investigation of Spielvogel began in October 1997 after he called Cretul. That call came after county commissioners wrote Pendergraft urging him to reconsider opening a clinic in Marion County.
In that call, Cretul testified, Spielvogel told him the county could expect violent protests and possible firebombings if the clinic opened, but that the controversy could be avoided if the county purchased the clinic property.
Two days later, Cretul contacted the Sheriff’s Office, which referred him to Piersanti.
“We had the suspicion that Michael Spielvogel was attempting to inflame public sentiment against the clinic, to get money,” Piersanti said Thursday. “He was going to do all these things, and as a result of that, they expected violent protests and firebombings at the clinic. . . . It was our suspicion that Michael Spielvogel was attempting to get money he wasn’t entitled to, through the use of fear.”
At Piersanti’s direction, Cretul began secretly recording telephone conversations with Spielvogel, and later, with Pendergraft.
After one such conversation Spielvogel called the FBI office in Tampa to report that Cretul had made the threats against him, his wife and the clinic. A tape of the call, played earlier in the trial, did not show Cretul making any threats.
Because Spielvogel lives in Orlando, the Tampa FBI office referred him to Orlando-based agent Susan Langford Den Brock.
Den Brock testified Thursday that she took Spielvogel’s complaint, then told him she would be required to pass it on to the Jacksonville office, which would refer it to an Ocala agent.
Spielvogel responded that he didn’t want the Ocala office involved, Den Brock said, although he wasn’t specific about why. The agent told him she had no jurisdiction because the FBI’s Jacksonville division controls the Ocala office.
Eventually, Spielvogel’s complaint became part of Piersanti’s investigation. In a call taped on Feb. 9, 1998, Spielvogel repeated his allegations against Cretul to Piersanti directly.
On the same tape, Spielvogel also said he talked to Den Brock and another agent about his proposal that Cretul have the county buy the clinic.
“I asked the FBI if I could do that, so it’s not like extortion or something,” Spielvogel said to Piersanti. “. . . I don’t want anybody to accuse me of extorting a municipality.”
Spielvogel pushed the idea that he should secretly record a meeting between Cretul and himself.
“Because of what happened in Alabama,” he said, “this would make a hell of a statement, to take down a government official for this kind of activity.”
Not long afterward, Piersanti and the U.S. Attorney’s Office came to the conclusion that Spielvogel’s comments in the telephone calls didn’t rise to the level of extortion, Piersanti said. But the case was reopened after Pendergraft sent a letter to Cretul telling him to contact Spielvogel if he had better plans for Pendergraft’s Ocala facility.
At that point, Cretul began talking by phone with Pendergraft, again recorded without Pendergraft’s knowledge. Yet again, Piersanti said, the government had no basis for an extortion charge against either man.
That changed with a March 1999, meeting among Pendergraft, Spielvogel, Lucas and Wright, the county’s lawyer. At that meeting, which was videotaped by the FBI, Lucas threatened to bankrupt Marion County, and Pendergraft concurred. At that meeting, Spielvogel again repeated his allegations that Cretul had threatened him.
Pendergraft’s attorneys contended Wednesday that Wright didn’t have the authority to negotiate on behalf of the county. On Thursday morning, they announced that, because Wright did have that authority, one of Pendergraft’s defense strategies will be entrapment by the government.
Pendergraft attorney Larry Colleton began cross-examining Piersanti late Thursday, questioning her credentials.
Colleton also questioned why Piersanti would allow Cretul to make calls to Pendergraft or Spielvogel without being present herself.
“If this is a responsible member of the community, I didn’t feel it was necessary” to be present, she said.
Heidi Mullis, a former Pendergraft employee, testified Thursday that Spielvogel called her at home twice, in August and October, as the case was getting ready to go to trial. Both times, Spielvogel asked her if she remembered when a Marion County official called the Orlando clinic and made threats, which Spielvogel repeated to the room.
On the second call, Spielvogel’s wife, Mary, also talked to Mullis, who testified Thursday that she told the couple that she could not remember any such phone call.
The trial is scheduled to continue this morning, with Piersanti again on the witness stand.