By Bill Thompson, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — An Orlando doctor and his former real estate consultant pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges they schemed to extort millions of dollars from Marion County taxpayers.
James Scott Pendergraft, owner of the Ocala Women’s Center at 108 N. Pine Ave., denied allegations he intentionally lied about threats to his clinic, at which abortions are performed, in order to settle a federal lawsuit he brought against city and county officials.
Pendergraft’s former business consultant and co-defendant, Michael Spielvogel, also asserted his innocence.
A federal grand jury indicted Pendergraft and Spielvogel on June 13, charging them with one count each of conspiracy to commit extortion, lying under oath and mail fraud. Spielvogel faces one additional count each of offering false testimony and making false statements to FBI investigators.
U.S. Magistrate Gary R. Jones accepted the pleas and ordered the defendants immediately released on their own recognizance, citing their clean criminal records and their strong community ties in Orlando. However, Jones did make them to surrender their passports and to turn over any weapons they might own.
Jones set their trial for Sept. 5.
If convicted as charged, Pendergraft faces up to 30 years in prison and fines of $750,000, the judge said. Spielvogel could receive 40 years behind bars and fines of $1.25 million, if convicted as charged.
The accusations stem from the defendants’ actions during a lawsuit Pendergraft filed in December 1998. He sued Marion County, the City of Ocala, police Chief Morrey Deen, Marion County Sheriff Ed Dean, former sheriff Ken Ergle and a dozen anti-abortion activists, alleging officials failed to provide adequate protection for his clinic.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit in December.
Federal prosecutors maintain that as the lawsuit proceeded between February 1999 and April 1999 Spielvogel concocted stories about Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul saying Pendergraft’s clinic would be fire bombed or that Spielvogel’s wife, who worked there, would be harmed.
Pendergraft’s lawyer in the civil action, Roy Lucas, subsequently relayed Cretul’s alleged threats to Virgil “Bill” Wright III, a lawyer representing Marion County, and other attorneys involved in the lawsuit, according to the indictment.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel also submitted sworn statements, described by prosecutors as “false, fraudulent and libelous,” attesting to Cretul’s remarks, the indictment says.
Federal prosecutors contend Pendergraft, Spielvogel and Lucas met with Wright in March 1999 to settle the lawsuit. If not done so to their satisfaction, the plaintiffs said they would repeat Cretul’s supposed threats in court and “bankrupt” Marion County by asking a jury to award them more than $100 million, investigators say.
Thursday, Pendergraft entered his plea about two hours after he proclaimed his innocence at a news conference held in his office at his Ocala clinic, which he opened in July 1998.
“The allegations contained in the indictment filed against me are untrue,’‘ said Pendergraft, 43. “I am not a criminal. I’m completely innocent of all charges.”
Pendergraft said the criminal charges partly could be attributed to the anti-abortion sentiment of county commissioners, Cretul in particular. Pendergraft, who operates four other clinics in Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa, said officials here have been the most hostile to him.
Pendergraft’s lawyer in the criminal case, Larry Colleton of Orlando, promised to mount a vigorous defense, saying his client believed Spielvogel was being truthful about Cretul’s threats.
Colleton added that it wasn’t likely the community’s anti-abortion feelings would dissipate in the near future.
Pendergraft’s co-counsel, Jacob Rose of West Palm Beach, said Pendergraft’s defense team most likely would request a change of venue because the “inflammatory conduct” already demonstrated meant Pendergraft probably wouldn’t get a fair trial in Ocala.
Spielvogel, 53, and his lawyer, Daniel Brodersen of Orlando, both declined to comment on the case following the hearing.