By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV testified Thursday he would still seek a $100 million judgment against Marion County if that was what it took to ensure his rights and those of the women of the county.
Pendergraft — owner of the Ocala Women’s Center, which provides abortions — took the witness stand in his own defense at his federal extortion trial. Co-defendant Michael Spielvogel concluded his testimony earlier in the day.
In a March 1999 meeting of Pendergraft, his then-attorney Roy Lucas, Spielvogel and Virgil “Bill” Wright, a lawyer for the county, Lucas threatened to bankrupt the county by asking for a $100 million civil judgment.
Pendergraft vowed to bankrupt the county and place a statue of himself in the center of the county saying he “brought freedom to Ocala.”
A videotape of that meeting, secretly recorded by the FBI, forms the basis for the conspiracy-to-commit-extortion charge Pendergraft and Spielvogel are facing.
Soft-spoken and deliberate, and frequently looking toward the jury box, Pendergraft didn’t back down Wednesday from his statement on the videotape.
“If that was what it took to prevent this from happening to anyone else in the country,” he said, “if that was the message to be sent out, then I was for that, if it was something I deserved, or the Ocala Women’s Center deserved.”
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 clinic, on Pine Avenue, and four other clinics, in Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, which also perform abortions.
At the time the Ocala clinic opened in July 1998, Pendergraft requested that off-duty Ocala police officers or Marion County sheriff’s deputies be allowed to work security details at the clinic. Then-Sheriff Ken Ergle and Ocala Police Chief Morrey Deen both refused permission.
The clinic needed help, Pendergraft said Thursday, because at the time anti-abortion protesters were blocking the driveway entrance, blocking the doors and getting as close as five feet from staff members and patients.
“We knew we needed protection from the protesters,” Pendergraft said. “Because we didn’t appear to be getting anywhere with the police, I turned to Mr. Lucas.”
The intent of the lawsuit was to force the protesters back far enough to allow staff and patients safe access and to require Deen and Ergle to allow their officers to work as clinic security, Pendergraft said.
Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges issued a preliminary injunction requiring the city to allow off-duty officers to work at the clinic but dismissed the lawsuit in December 1999, after Lucas failed to pursue it. Hodges is presiding over the criminal trial.
Wednesday’s testimony began with Spielvogel on the stand, under continued cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux. Although the exchanges between them began on a relatively civil note, mutual hostility quickly became evident.
Spielvogel and Devereaux clashed repeatedly throughout the cross-examination. On Wednesday, Spielvogel had mentioned an allegation made by some of Pendergraft’s supporters that Devereaux once referred to Pendergraft in a pre-trial meeting as a “head-crusher.”
Asked about Spielvogel’s remark Thursday, Devereaux first declined to comment, then said the statement came “from a liar.”
He added: “There’s nobody in this courtroom who would believe Mr. Spielvogel.”
On Wednesday, Devereaux asked Spielvogel if he knew what it meant to “take the fall.” On Thursday, he asked, “Have you ever heard of a bag man, the guy who goes out and does stuff for the bad person?”
“I’m not a bag man,” Spielvogel responded.
The FBI began investigating Spielvogel and Pendergraft in October 1997, after Spielvogel called County Commissioner Larry Cretul. The commission had sent a one-paragraph letter to Pendergraft asking him to reconsider his plans to open the Ocala clinic.
In that call, Cretul testified, Spielvogel 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, secretly taped subsequent phone calls between himself and Pendergraft or Spielvogel.
Pendergraft testified Thursday he bought the property for the Ocala clinic after determining there was a need for reproductive health services in Marion County.
Spielvogel didn’t understand why he wanted to open the clinic, Pendergraft said.
“I told Michael that I was not interested in anyone buying my facility, that I was coming to Ocala because there was a need there. I told him I didn’t care if I made one dime there.”
A substantial number of Marion County patients were traveling to his Orlando facilities, Pendergraft said.
Spielvogel was afraid of Ocala from the start, Pendergraft said.
“When it came to Ocala, he just had this fear, this terror that something bad was going to happen up here,” Pendergraft said.
Spielvogel acknowledged Wednesday 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. After that call, Spielvogel called the FBI, alleging Cretul threatened him.
He also said that, after calling the FBI, he drove to one of Pendergraft’s two Orlando clinics and faked a call. He pretended to repeat threats Cretul was making as Pendergraft was walking into the room.
Spielvogel also said Wednesday that he didn’t tell his lawyer, Pendergraft’s lawyers or Pendergraft that the call was staged until 17 days ago, after the trial started.
In March 1999, Lucas filed two affidavits, one from Spielvogel and one from Pendergraft. Spielvogel’s documented the threats Cretul was falsely accused of making, and Pendergraft’s said he believed Spielvogel, based on the staged phone call.
Lucas used those affidavits as the basis for his demand for a settlement from the county. Pendergraft testified Thursday that Lucas proposed the settlement and he was relying on the lawyer’s advice.
Pendergraft said Thursday he was “very angry, but forgiving” about Spielvogel’s deception.
Pendergraft is scheduled to return to the witness stand this morning. The trial is expected to conclude next week.