Pendergraft trial starts closing arguments

By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner

OCALA — Testimony concluded Monday in the federal extortion trial of Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV, who is the owner of Ocala Women’s Center, and his associate Michael Spielvogel.

For most of the day, Pendergraft continued to testify in his own defense.

Attorneys are scheduled to make closing arguments today, starting with Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux at 9 a.m. Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges has allowed him three hours for closing and granted 1 hours each for Pendergraft’s and Spielvogel’s lawyers.

They are charged with attempting to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government through a lawsuit Pendergraft filed in December 1998.

FBI Special Agent Pamela Piersanti, earlier a prosecution witness, was recalled by the defense as the last witness.

Pendergraft attorney Larry Colleton asked Piersanti whether she had tried to investigate Roy Lucas, Pendergraft’s attorney in the lawsuit, who disappeared before Pendergraft and Spielvogel were indicted.

Piersanti acknowledged she made no serious effort to find Lucas until after the trial began and defense attorneys said they could not find him.

The FBI began investigating Spielvogel and Pendergraft in October 1997, after Spielvogel called Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul. In that telephone conversation, Cretul has testified, Spielvogel said the county could avoid problems — like “violent protests and firebombings” — at the Pine Avenue clinic by buying the property.

The County Commission had sent Pendergraft a letter asking him not to open the Ocala clinic, which provides abortions.

Cretul, at the FBI’s direction, taped subsequent telephone conversations with Pendergraft and with Spielvogel.

In January 1998, after a call from Cretul, Spielvogel called the FBI and reported Cretul had threatened him, his wife and Pendergraft’s clinic.

Spielvogel later repeated those allegations in a written affidavit, which Lucas used in trying to obtain a financial settlement from the county during a meeting with attorney Virgil “Bill” Wright III, who represented the county in the lawsuit. Pendergraft filed a second affidavit supporting Spielvogel.

Spielvogel testified last week that after he called the FBI, he drove to Pendergraft’s office in Orlando, where he faked a call in which Cretul allegedly made threats to him as Pendergraft walked into the room. That faked call formed the basis for Pendergraft’s affidavit.

Spielvogel admitted only after the trial had started that he staged the call to mislead Pendergraft.

Pendergraft said he had forgiven Spielvogel for the deception.

“With my growing up and believing in God, number one, you’re supposed to forgive,” he said. “Michael was a pawn in the situation where the government was coming after me, to keep me out of Ocala, no matter what.”

Pendergraft was on the witness stand in his own defense for most of the day Monday. Under intense questioning from Devereaux, Pendergraft repeated for a third day that he depended on Lucas’ advice in filing the lawsuit, which Hodges dismissed in December 1999.

Cretul also made comments that Pendergraft regarded as “threats to the stability of (his) business” throughout the course of four telephone calls between Cretul and Pendergraft, the doctor testified.

Cretul, who was speaking to Pendergraft under Piersanti’s direction at the time, kept bringing the conversation back to the possibility of violence, Pendergraft said. Cretul also referred to a statement by Pendergraft that a $1 million payment would keep him out of the county for life as a “payoff,” or “extortion,” descriptions with which Pendergraft repeatedly took issue with.

“He continued to hammer out the fact that I was a criminal, that the county’s paying me off not to come to Marion County,” Pendergraft said. “He’s telling me that I’m a criminal.”

On audiotapes of the telephone conversations, Pendergraft repeatedly rejects Cretul’s references to extortion or payoffs.

Pendergraft also took issue with the original letter from the county commissioners, which Cretul signed as commission chairman. That letter made it appear that the government of Marion County opposed the opening of an abortion clinic in the county, Pendergraft said. That emboldened protesters outside the clinic once it opened, he added.

“When that goes out to the community, that gives the protesters sort of a carte blanche to do what they want to do,” he said, “by knowing the government’s on their side.”

Under questioning from Devereaux, Pendergraft acknowledged that anti-abortion comments he thought Cretul made at the October, 1997, board meeting approving the letter were made instead by Commissioner Randy Harris.

But Pendergraft said he believed Cretul was behind an organized effort to keep him out of Ocala.

“Larry Cretul did not want me to come to Ocala, and he didn’t want me to bring my practice here,” Pendergraft said.

Pendergraft’s bodyguard, Andre Stewart, returned to the courtroom Monday for the first time in several days, after testimony ended, and just as the jury was leaving for the day.

Stewart had been present for most of the trial. But he disappeared abruptly last week, after Devereaux asked Pendergraft if he had asked Stewart to leave a meeting held between himself, Spielvogel and Lucas just before the settlement conference with Wright.

Moments before Stewart entered the courtroom Monday, Pendergraft defense attorney Larry Colleton had asked Piersanti if she wanted to serve him with a subpoena. Piersanti responded that the question of whether to subpoena him wasn’t her decision to make.

Pendergraft is charged in three counts, Spielvogel in five. If convicted, Pendergraft faces up to 30 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, while Spielvogel could face up to 40 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines.

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