By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — As the federal trial of Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV and Michael Spielvogel resumed Monday, the judge dealt a blow to the defense.
Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges ruled that Pendergraft and Spielvogel’s attorneys could not call county commissioners and local ministers to the witness stand.
Hodges quashed defense subpoenas for Commissioners Randy Harris, Steve Henning and Parnell Townley; former Commissioner Judy Johnson; and several area ministers, including the Rev. Edward Johnson of the First Baptist Church of Ocala.
Pendergraft attorney Larry Colleton argued that the ministers’ testimony was needed to verify letters sent to Pendergraft urging him not to open an abortion clinic in Marion County. Colleton and Spielvogel attorney Daniel Brodersen called such testimony critical to their clients’ defense.
Hodges ruled that neither the ministers’ proposed testimony nor the letters were part of the case.
“I can see utterly no relevance whatsoever in this criminal prosecution to any of these letters,” Hodges said.
“But your honor…,” Colleton began.
“I have not invited you to interrupt me,” Hodges shot back.
He said: “The issue of abortion simply has no relevance in the case.”
Defense attorneys had subpoenaed Harris, Townley, Henning, and Johnson to testify about what, if any, information Commissioner Larry Cretul had shared with them about calls and letters between Cretul and Pendergraft or Spielvogel. Hodges also ruled that testimony irrelevant.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel are charged with conspiring to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government by making fraudulent statements in a lawsuit Pendergraft filed in December 1998. Hodges dismissed the civil suit a year later.
Pendergraft owns the Ocala Women’s Center, which performs abortions.
The case stems from an investigation FBI agent Pamela Piersanti opened in October 1997, after Spielvogel called Cretul. Spielvogel allegedly told Cretul the county could expect “violent protests and firebombings” if the clinic opened but the problems could be avoided if the county bought the clinic property. Cretul reported the call to the FBI.
At Piersanti’s direction, Cretul secretly taped calls between Spielvogel and himself.
The trial, which began Jan. 2, resumed Monday with Brodersen cross-examining Piersanti. She repeatedly testified she did not believe Spielvogel ever felt threatened by anything Cretul said to him.
Spielvogel complained to the FBI on Jan. 29, 1998, that Cretul had threatened him and the clinic. In a later affidavit, Spielvogel said he repeated Cretul’s alleged threats to Pendergraft as Cretul said them. Cretul’s tape of the call to Spielvogel that day includes no such threats, but Spielvogel still believed they happened, attorney Brodersen said Monday.
“Michael Spielvogel actually believed that those things had been discussed between him and Mr. Cretul,” he said in his opening statement to the jury.
Brodersen acknowledged that Pendergraft never was in the same room while Cretul was talking to Spielvogel, but said Spielvogel later faked a call at Pendergraft’s office, repeating the alleged threats for Pendergraft to hear.
Tampa-based FBI agent Kerry Myers was the last prosecution witness. Myers testified that he refused to take Spielvogel’s call to the Tampa FBI office on Jan. 29, 1998. Myers said he knew Spielvogel from a 1992 investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux did not ask Myers to elaborate on that investigation, and neither Pendergraft’s nor Spielvogel’s attorneys cross-examined him.
The defense began its case with attorney William Weatherford on the stand. Weatherford testified that he had advised Pendergraft on property purchases in other parts of the state, but not Ocala.
Weatherford also testified that he was present at a 1997 meeting at which Pendergraft and Spielvogel differed on whether to open the Ocala clinic.
“He (Spielvogel) was adamantly opposed to Dr. Pendergraft opening a clinic in Ocala,” Weatherford said. “He told me he believed it would be very dangerous for Dr. Pendergraft to open a clinic in Ocala.”
Pendergraft supporters held a press conference outside the clinic during the trial’s lunch break, to show their support for Pendergraft and to commemorate the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion throughout the United States.
“Thousands around the country are watching this trial and believe Dr. Pendergraft is being persecuted because he is an abortion provider,” said Dr. Sandy Pati, coordinator of the Right To Fight Coalition, a Pendergraft support organization.
“We realize this is a precedent-setting case,” added Tracy Stren of Refuse and Resist, another advocacy group supporting Pendergraft. “And we will not allow this to be used against other abortion providers.”
The trial, which had recessed for a week because Hodges was out of town, is scheduled to enter its 11th day this morning. Spielvogel is expected to testify, possibly as early as today. Pendergraft’s lawyers have said they’re not certain yet whether Pendergraft will testify.