By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — From the witness stand Wednesday, Michael Spielvogel did his best to do what he said has always been his top priority in Ocala — protecting an innocent Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV.
During the day, Spielvogel admitted he lied to Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul about Pendergraft’s plans for an Ocala abortion clinic and about threats allegedly made by Cretul.
Spielvogel acknowledged that he faked the telephone call in which he repeated the threats Cretul allegedly made for Pendergraft to hear.
Spielvogel also testified he didn’t tell Pendergraft, Pendergraft’s lawyers, or even his own lawyer, that he faked that call until sometime in the past 16 days — after the federal trial had started in Ocala.
But he adamantly insisted Pendergraft didn’t know about his lies and that his co-defendant had done nothing wrong.
“I’m the scumbucket, dirtbucket, if you want to call it that,” Spielvogel said angrily. “If I go to prison and he goes free, that’s the right thing, if I did anything wrong.”
Spielvogel’s outburst, just before the trial recessed for the day, came after more than an hour of intense, aggressive questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux. Moments before, Devereaux had asked Spielvogel if he knew what it meant to “take the fall for somebody.”
Devereaux repeatedly quizzed Spielvogel about the faked phone call. Speaking loudly to overcome Spielvogel’s partial hearing loss, Devereaux’s tone was icy and frequently sarcastic.
Spielvogel called his picking up a telephone in Pendergraft’s office and repeating comments he alleged Cretul made to him a “re-enactment.”
“Was it a true-life re-enactment, like MacArthur’s return to the Philippines?” Devereaux asked. “Was this a faked re-enactment or a real re-enactment?”
Earlier in the day, Spielvogel admitted that Cretul did not make threats against Spielvogel’s wife or the clinic and did not mention an Alabama clinic bombing during a telephone call between the two men on Jan. 29, 1998.
Devereaux and Pendergraft attorney Jacob Rose sparred briefly near the start of Devereaux’s cross-examination. Rose objected twice to Devereaux’s habit of pointing with his arm toward Pendergraft as he questioned Spielvogel. The second time, Rose and Devereaux exchanged words briefly.
At that, Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges slammed his fist down on the bench.
“You will not address each other!” he declared loudly. “Your objection, Mr. Rose, is overruled. Sit down.”
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.
Pendergraft owns the Ocala Women’s Center on Pine Avenue and four other Florida clinics, which perform abortions.
The FBI began investigating Spielvogel and Pendergraft in October 1997, after Spielvogel called Cretul, shortly after the County Commissioners sent a one-paragraph letter to Pendergraft asking him to reconsider his plans to open the Ocala clinic.
In that call, Cretul testified, Spielvogel allegedly said the county could expect “violent protests and firebombings” if the Pine Avenue clinic opened but the problems could be avoided if the county bought the clinic property.
Cretul, at the FBI’s direction, taped subsequent phone calls between himself and Pendergraft or Spielvogel.
Spielvogel testified repeatedly Wednesday that his sole purpose in talking to Cretul was to try to persuade Pendergraft that the doctor shouldn’t open a clinic in Ocala.
“I was scared at the possibility of the clinic’s opening in Ocala and my wife going up there and Dr. Pendergraft’s safety and the staff’s safety,” he said. Spielvogel’s wife, Mary, is a clerical employee in Pendergraft’s Orlando clinic.
Pendergraft didn’t share his concerns, Spielvogel said.
“Dr. Pendergraft just shut me down,” he testified. “I told him I was scared about him going to Ocala, that I was scared for his staff going to Ocala.”
Around the time of the January 1998 telephone conversation between Spielvogel and Cretul, Spielvogel’s father was dying of cancer in Houston, Spielvogel said.
With the stress of his father’s pending death, the Birmingham clinic bombing and a comment from Cretul that he believed protest letters Pendergraft was receiving from area churches were “gonna be mild,” Spielvogel did feel threatened, he said.
“It was just a total buildup in my head of what was happening,” he said.
After that conversation with Cretul, Spielvogel called the FBI himself to ask to for protection from Cretul’s alleged threats. Later that evening, he went to the Orlando Women’s Center and made a brief telephone call from Pendergraft’s unoccupied office to a relative.
As Pendergraft entered the office, Spielvogel still had the phone in his hand. He began saying things as if he were talking to Cretul and repeating comments Cretul was making, loud enough for Pendergraft to hear.
Spielvogel later repeated his allegations in an affidavit filed in the lawsuit. Pendergraft filed a second affidavit saying he believed Spielvogel, because Spielvogel repeated the threats while he was on the phone with Cretul.
“I didn’t mean to deceive anybody on this affidavit,” Spielvogel said Wednesday. “I believed what I signed to be correct and true, as to my feelings.”
Attorney Roy Lucas, who has since disappeared, attempted to use those affidavits in March 1999 to seek a financial settlement from Marion County in the lawsuit. Lucas came up with the idea of trying to collect monetary damages, Spielvogel said. Hodges dismissed the lawsuit in late 1999.
An FBI videotape of a meeting of Lucas, Pendergraft, Spielvogel, and the county’s lawyer, Virgil “Bill” Wright III, shows Spielvogel repeating the allegation that Cretul threatened him, his wife and the clinic.
The trial is scheduled to continue this morning, with Spielvogel returning to the witness stand to face more cross-examination by Devereaux.