By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV testified Friday that he believes county commissioners, the Ocala Police Department, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office could be involved in a conspiracy to drive him out of Ocala.
A combination of factors, ranging from a letter by the County Commission to the FBI’s refusal to pursue a complaint, made him think a conspiracy was possible, Pendergraft said during his federal extortion trail.
Pendergraft owns the Ocala Women’s Center on North Pine Avenue and four other Florida clinics that perform abortions.
He spent a full day on the witness stand in his own defense. He and his associate, Michael Spielvogel, are charged with attempting to extort millions of dollars from Marion County through a lawsuit.
The Ocala Women’s Center opened in July 1998, to heavy protests from anti-abortion activists. Pendergraft testified Thursday that protesters frequently blocked the clinic’s entrance and driveway and approached to within five feet of patients and staff.
Pendergraft had filed the lawsuit on the advice of attorney Roy Lucas in December 1998. Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges dismissed the suit a year later, after Lucas failed to pursue it. Hodges is presiding over Pendergraft and Spielvogel’s criminal trial.
On Friday, Pendergraft repeatedly testified that his reasons for filing the lawsuit were to get an injunction requiring anti-abortion protesters to move back from the clinic entrance and driveway, and to force the city of Ocala to allow off-duty police officers to work as security guards at the clinic.
The FBI began investigating Spielvogel and Pendergraft in October 1997, after Spielvogel called Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul. The County Commission had sent Pendergraft a letter asking him not to open the clinic.
Cretul has testified Spielvogel told him the county could expect “violent protests and firebombings” if the clinic opened — problems could be avoided if the county bought the property.
Cretul, at the FBI’s direction, taped subsequent phone conversations with Pendergraft and Spielvogel.
On Jan. 29, 1998, Spielvogel told the Tampa FBI office Cretul had threatened him, his wife and the Ocala clinic.
Spielvogel admitted earlier in the week that he later drove to Pendergraft’s Ocala clinic and faked a call from Cretul in front of Pendergraft to make the doctor believe Cretul had made the threats.
In March 1999, Spielvogel filed an affidavit in the lawsuit, recounting the threats he alleged Cretul made. Pendergraft filed another affidavit supporting Spielvogel’s version of events, saying he had witnessed Spielvogel’s end of the conversation.
Attorney Lucas, who has since disappeared, tried to get money from the county, using those affidavits. During a secretly videotaped meeting at the office of Virgil “Bill” Wright, the county’s lawyer, Spielvogel repeated his allegations against Cretul, and Pendergraft supported him. Lucas threatened to bankrupt the county, and Pendergraft said he would do so and place a statue of himself downtown saying he “brought freedom to Ocala.”
Pendergraft testified he relied exclusively on Lucas’ advice in seeking a settlement. But he also repeated that he wouldn’t hesitate to bankrupt the county if that was what it took to protect women’s legal right to abortion and his right to operate his clinic in Ocala.
“If the law says I can do that, as I said before, I have no problem with taking it all away,” he said. “I’m not even ashamed about it.”
As part of the FBI investigation of Spielvogel and, later, Pendergraft, FBI agent Pamela Piersanti told Spielvogel in February 1998 that the agency wouldn’t open an investigation based on his complaint against Cretul.
Pendergraft said the combination of events — the County Commission’s letter, the alleged threats from Cretul, Spielvogel’s apparent fear of Ocala, protest letters from area churches, the difficulty in getting off-duty police protection and the FBI’s refusal to investigate Spielvogel’s complaint — prompted him to consider the possibility of a plot to drive him out of Ocala.
“How much more do you have to have to say that there’s a possibility — a possibility — that there’s a conspiracy?” he asked.
Pendergraft also said he believed Spielvogel was just a way for the government to indict him.
“They used Michael as a pawn to get me,” he said.
Much of Friday’s testimony was repetitive, with Pendergraft slowly and distinctly responding, “That is correct,” or, “Yes, I did,” during Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux’s cross-examination.
Devereaux quizzed Pendergraft about comments he made to Cretul in taped conversations between the two men. After Pendergraft said he believed Cretul had threatened Spielvogel, and that Pendergraft felt threatened by some of Cretul’s remarks, Devereaux asked why Pendergraft had told Cretul he respected him.
“You have to have some respectful grounds in order to negotiate and do some things, even with your enemy,” Pendergraft responded.
Yet Pendergraft said he didn’t believe Cretul had similar motives in making similar statements.
“He was glad he was talking to me, because he was trying to put me in prison for the rest of my life,” Pendergraft said.
Toward the end of the day, Pendergraft’s soft baritone became louder as he and Devereaux began to clash more.
“You’re still missing the point, aren’t you?” Pendergraft said. “This whole thing, which the United States government has somehow gotten into, the whole thing was about pushing back the protesters and getting police protection.”
The trial is scheduled to enter its 15th day Monday, with Pendergraft again taking the witness stand. It is expected to conclude next week.