By Frank Stanfield, Sentinel Correspondent
OCALA — An Orlando abortion doctor vowed Thursday to keep his clinics open, despite his conviction on charges of conspiring to extort money from Marion County officials.
A federal jury deliberated for eight hours during two days before finding Dr. James Pendergraft and his associate Michael Spielvogel of Orlando guilty of all charges. Both were released without bail until U.S. District Judge Terrell Hodges sets a sentencing date.
Pendergraft, who operates two Orlando clinics and three others in Florida, faces up to 30 years in prison. Spielvogel could get as many as 40 years.
“I’m disappointed in the justice system as far as saying that I’m guilty,” Pendergraft said. “But I will continue to fight that, and in the interim I will take care of women in their most difficult time.”
Jacob Rose, Pendergraft’s lawyer, promised a quick appeal.
Bill Parizek, a spokesman with the Florida Board of Medicine, did not comment specifically about Pendergraft’s case but said physicians must report being convicted within 30 days. A panel then investigates to see whether the conviction would interfere with a doctor’s ability to practice medicine. He said a clinic could remain open even if its owner is in prison if another physician is appointed to run it.
Pendergraft was found guilty of conspiracy, attempted extortion and mail fraud. Spielvogel, his real estate adviser, was convicted of the same charges, plus lying to the FBI and filing a false statement.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel showed no emotion in the courtroom, but County Commissioner Larry Cretul seemed relieved: “I believe this jury’s decision brought the truth out.”
Cretul’s testimony and his secretly taped FBI conversations with the two men apparently convinced jurors that Pendergraft and Spielvogel tried to get county officials to pay them off to keep them from opening a clinic in Ocala.
But Pendergraft’s supporters contended the prosecution was politically motivated by abortion opponents in this city 75 miles northwest of Orlando.
“We can see how an innocent person can be convicted in a United States courtroom,” said Dr. Sangeeta Pati, a spokeswoman for Right to Fight, a coalition of abortion-rights groups. “Abortion was an issue. Race was an issue.”
Anti-abortion activists disagreed. “It looks like justice was done,” said Meredith Raney, spokesman for Christians For Life. “It didn’t have anything to do with him being an abortionist. It had to do with extortion, but if it takes him out of the abortion business, I’m thrilled with that.”
Rose, Pendergraft’s attorney, said he would appeal based on what he called prosecutor misconduct. He failed Wednesday to get the judge to declare a mistrial based on Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux’s closing arguments in which he said Pendergraft, who is black, was “shuckin’ and jivin’ “ on the witness stand. “It was disrespectful,” Rose said.
Even worse, he said, Devereaux accused the doctor of bribing Spielvogel to lie on the witness stand, Rose said.
Spielvogel’s plans for appeal were less certain. “I’ve got to talk to my client about that,” said his attorney, Dan Brodersen.