Jurors Heard Recorded Conversations As Testimony Began In The Federal Extortion-conspiracy Case
By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez of The Sentinel Staff
OCALA — An Orlando doctor and his associate tried to wrest a payoff for as much as $500,000 from a county commissioner three years ago to avert the opening of a controversial abortion clinic in Marion County, a federal prosecutor told trial jurors Wednesday.
“Cut a check, or we’ll shake you down,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux in outlining the extortion-conspiracy case against Dr. James Pendergraft and business associate Michael Spielvogel.
As testimony in the case began Wednesday, jurors heard the first of several tape-recorded conversations. The prosecutor likened the case against Pendergraft, 43, and Spielvogel, 54, to motorists staging a crash and defrauding insurers.
“It’s not any different than two people faking a car accident, and then we’ll just sue our respective car-insurance companies,” Devereaux said.
Not so, said attorneys for Pendergraft and Spielvogel, both Orlando area residents.
“You will see that Dr. Pendergraft is being persecuted for what he does,” Jacob Rose, one of Pendergraft’s two attorneys, told the jury. “Pendergraft is not guilty of any wrongdoing, and those who are guilty are those who conspired to get him.”
Rose said FBI agents, prosecutors and local leaders started trying to incriminate Pendergraft after a 1997 conversation between County Chairman Larry Cretul and Spielvogel, the real-estate broker who acted as site manager for Pendergraft’s clinic in Ocala.
Rose also told jurors to expect “exaggerations” from prosecutors. He said amounts of money discussed during the phone calls came up “in the context of negotiations” and concerned Pendergraft’s future loss of income at the proposed Ocala clinic.
However, Cretul testified that Spielvogel threatened controversy and implied extortion when the broker telephoned to respond to a 1997 letter that Cretul had written to Pendergraft asking him to reconsider opening his clinic.
“Mr. Spielvogel told me all of this could be avoided if we bought this building for $500,000,” Cretul said of the call, which was not recorded.
Cretul’s notes from that conversation, however, were admitted as evidence. “Wants to be bought off,” read Cretul’s scribbled notes.
Several weeks later, Cretul contacted the FBI, which spawned a three-year investigation that culminated last summer in an indictment against Pendergraft and Spielvogel.
“You need to buy the building from me, and I’ve got to make a nice profit,” Spielvogel could be heard in a subsequent taped conversation. In another recording, Spielvogel says, “It’s not a payoff or extortion.”
In yet another phone call, when Cretul would not commit to any deal, Spielvogel suggested the county chairman arrange a collection from protesting church leaders and parishioners to come up with the money.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel are accused of conspiracy to defraud, interfering with commerce by threatening extortion, and mail fraud. Spielvogel also is charged with lying to FBI agents and filing a false 1999 affidavit stating Cretul had made threats that the new clinic would be firebombed. Pendergraft filed his own affidavit supporting Spielvogel’s account.
Tapes from 1997 and 1998 that were played Wednesday did not include a video recording which supposedly shows Pendergraft, Spielvogel, their former civil-trial lawyer and a Marion County attorney discussing a settlement of up to $100 million for damages in a separate civil suit.
Pendergraft’s 1998 suit includes affidavits by him and Spielvogel, which Devereaux says were falsely submitted.
Devereaux, who lowered his voice when quoting Pendergraft and Spielvogel, said the two, using a lawyer, schemed to try to “bankrupt” Marion County when they met with a county attorney in 1999.
“Not try. We will,” Devereaux quoted the doctor as saying. “We’ll build a statue . . . that says Dr. Pendergraft brought freedom to Marion County.”
Devereaux told the 14 jurors they would have a unique opportunity to assess the tones of voice in the cassettes. “It’s better than any cop show or anything else,” he said.
Driven by greed, the associates threatened to create a climate of protests and controversy that would overwhelm Ocala if county officials did not go along with plans to either establish the clinic or buy out the property, prosecutors said.
Before opening statements got under way, Devereaux complained to Judge W. Terrell Hodges about a large balloon and banner outside Pendergraft’s Ocala Women’s Center, which is near the federal courthouse on a main thoroughfare.
The messages, including dozens of national and local abortion-rights signatories, read in part, “Stop attacking abortion providers. Dr. Pendergraft is innocent.”
“If this is an attempt to influence the jury, it has very serious consequences,” Terrell said before ordering the defense to remove the objects. “How can that be interpreted, other than an attempt to influence the jury?”
Supporters of Pendergraft suggested the judge was infringing on their First Amendment rights.