By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star-Banner
OCALA — The owner of a local clinic that performs abortions has been indicted in federal court on extortion charges.
The five-count indictment, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, alleges that Dr. James Scott Pendergraft and his Orlando-based real estate adviser, Michael Spielvogel, conspired to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government by making false and fraudulent statements in a civil lawsuit Pendergraft filed in December 1998.
That lawsuit named the county, the city of Ocala, police chief Morrey Deen, Marion County Sheriff Ed Dean, former sheriff Ken Ergle and a dozen anti-abortion activists as defendants, alleging that the city and county failed to provide adequate protection to the Ocala Women’s Center at 108 N. Pine Ave. U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges dismissed that suit last December, after Pendergraft and attorney Roy Lucas failed to pursue it.
The new criminal indictment alleges Pendergraft and Spielvogel lied in that suit by saying County Commissioner Larry Cretul threatened Spielvogel and the clinic. The indictment also alleges that Pendergraft and Spielvogel, through Lucas, threatened to bankrupt the county with a $100 million lawsuit.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel now are subject to arrest if they do not turn themselves in to federal officials, U.S. District Court spokesman Steve Cole said late Wednesday. Once in custody, they will be subject to a bond hearing before a federal magistrate, Cole added.
Reached at his Fort Lauderdale clinic Wednesday afternoon, Pendergraft said he was unaware of the indictment.
The indictment calls statements Spielvogel made against Cretul in sworn affidavits “false, fictitious and libelous,” and calls the entire civil suit “a scheme to extort the payment of money from Marion County.”
On Feb. 24, 1999, Spielvogel signed an affidavit alleging that Cretul said in a telephone conversation that he knew Spielvogel’s wife worked for Pendergraft and that he (Cretul) “wouldn’t send any of his family members to Ocala if he were in my situation.”
The same affidavit also alleges that Cretul “pointedly and threateningly reminded (Spielvogel) of the earlier fire bombings in Ocala at (a previous abortion) clinic that had been twice destroyed by ‘unsolved’ arson,” and that “it’s not an ‘if,’ but a ‘when’ that this new clinic is bombed that concerned him.”
Spielvogel also alleged in the affidavit that Cretul referred to a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic bombing that killed one man and seriously wounded a nurse, and said it was “nothing compared to what will happen in Ocala.”
The affidavit went on to state that Pendergraft was in the room with Spielvogel when he allegedly spoke with Cretul, and could attest to Spielvogel’s “terror and reaction.”
The criminal indictment alleges Pendergraft and Spielvogel repeated those statements in March 1998, in a letter to Virgil “Bill” Wright III, the attorney who represented the county in the civil case, and in an injunction demand filed days later in federal court.
Spielvogel also allegedly repeated the comments about Cretul at a meeting in Wright’s office in March 1998, at which time Pendergraft said he was present at Spielvogel’s home during the alleged telephone conversation between Spielvogel and Cretul. At that meeting, Pendergraft and his attorney, Lucas, reportedly said they would “bankrupt Marion County, and would ask for a jury verdict of more than $100 million.”
Because both are scheduled to be a witnesses against Pendergraft and Spielvogel, Cretul and Wright both declined to comment Wednesday.
Spielvogel has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached for comment. Marti MacKenzie, Pendergraft’s Orlando-based spokeswoman, said Pendergraft and his attorneys had been aware for some time that the doctor was under investigation.
“The timing of the indictment was unexpected, but his defense team will be taking whatever measures available to protest, and to argue his innocence,” MacKenzie said.
“From day one, Ocala was an extremely hostile environment, from the government to the fundamentalists. He will fight this battle as he has previous battles.”
Anti-abortion protesters have picketed the Ocala Women’s Center since it opened in mid-1998.
The clinic will remain open for now, MacKenzie said.
“There are no plans to close anything at this time,” she said.