Pain clinic doctor linked to three patients' deaths has long troubled past

Now blamed in patients' deaths, Dr. Edward Feldman has kept a license despite serious challenges.
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TAMPA — Emergency room physician Anthony Davis has seen a lot of overdose cases. When he does, he checks to see who prescribed the drugs.

One name grew familiar: Edward Neil Feldman.

Fourteen months ago, Davis told the Florida Department of Health that he was sick of seeing the Pinellas Park doctor's overmedicated patients.

Davis likened Feldman to a drug pusher and said patients claimed he prescribed the pain killer oxycodone in powdered form.

"The only reason Feldman is prescribing the powder is so the patients can snort or inject it," a state investigator wrote, listing one of Davis' complaints.

The allegation is but one piece of the trouble that now surrounds Feldman, target of both state licensing actions and a federal criminal case.

An indictment unsealed last month blames the 75-year-old doctor for the prescription drug overdoses of three patients, while accusing him and his nonphysician wife, Kim Xuan Feldman, of a $6 million pain clinic conspiracy.

Both have entered not guilty pleas.

The doctor could face life in prison if convicted.

Since his arrival from New York 38 years ago, he has survived other serious legal and professional challenges, emerging with his medical license and freedom intact.

A pimp once identified Feldman as a repeat client in a teen and adult prostitution ring. An FBI agent spotted him discarding marijuana residue and a bong at a Tampa park. Both prosecutions were dropped, and Feldman had the sex arrest expunged.

Eleven years ago, he pleaded guilty to federal charges in an MRI kickback scheme.

The state Department of Health wrote afterward that he lacks the qualities of "reliability, honesty and good moral character" and is "not worthy to be entrusted with the privileges and authority vested in those who are licensed to practice medicine."

The Board of Medicine withheld trust for just six months before lifting a one-year suspension and setting Feldman free to ride his profession's most lucrative waves.

• • •

The medical board, once known as the Florida Board of Medical Examiners, first licensed Feldman in 1976 despite New York performance reviews that rated all aspects of his professional character, including medical knowledge, "poor" or "fair."

The reviews came from the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center and a U.S. Public Health Service hospital on Staten Island, where the native New Yorker, trained in Switzerland, was a resident specializing in orthopedic surgery.

He has since worked on both sides of Tampa Bay.

Early on, he walked into a void left by the 1978 death of respected orthopedic surgeon Lee J. Cordrey, a staple of personal injury trials. Feldman set up shop in Cordrey's former office on Cass Street near downtown Tampa.

The newcomer hit the radar and lawyers started calling. But while Cordrey had provided expert testimony on behalf of both plaintiffs and defendants alike, Feldman became known as a plaintiff's doctor, one who helped personal injury lawyers dig for gold.

"If a plaintiff was being treated by Ed Feldman, it would be a safe assumption that he was directed there by his attorney and could expect a favorable report," said Tampa lawyer H. Vance Smith.

Within five years of arrival, Feldman had bought two homes off Bayshore Boulevard in South Tampa. His apparent financial success became fodder for gossip and his ties to personal injury lawyers were duly noted by colleagues.

The norm was for new arrivals to affiliate with hospital staffs to establish a patient base. Hospitals provide an extra layer of oversight for inexperienced doctors. Feldman was an outsider.

"He's not been on staff at any of the hospitals I've practiced at in the course of my career," said veteran orthopedic surgeon Richard Goldberger, whose affiliations included Tampa General and St. Joseph's hospitals, among others. "It's unusual in the course of a 31-year practice that you don't run into another doctor."

If doctors didn't know Feldman well, lawyers made a point of studying him, especially the defense lawyers who needed to discredit him as a witness.

His credentials were vulnerable. He wasn't certified as a specialist by a board Florida recognized.

Lawyer John Campbell was known to get under his skin.

"It reached the point where I walked into his office to take a deposition and he refused to give the deposition to me," Campbell said.

Feldman's initial flurry of success was followed by Chapter 11 reorganization in bankruptcy court, IRS tax liens and the beginning of what would be decades of court filings over missed mortgage payments.

When he had money, he didn't hide it. After thieves mugged him in 1998, he reported the theft of a $2,800 Omega watch.

Soon, federal agents were among those noticing. He was watched closely enough that an FBI agent examined the trash Feldman left at Ballast Point Park in the summer of 2000, finding the bong.

Feldman had opened a practice on MacDill Avenue in Tampa that increasingly drew from the ranks of injured U.S. Postal Service workers. He would write reports on their behalf for compensation claims.

The Department of Labor was sometimes critical of his medical opinions for lack of evidence.

But even when clients didn't win, he won. He had arranged to get illegal kickbacks from MRIs, prosecutors charged.

When sentencing day rolled around in the kickback case, Feldman's attorney argued that the doctor shouldn't be subjected to an added penalty for violating a position of trust because the Department of Labor didn't actually trust him.

"There was almost a position of distrust," defense attorney Jack E. Fernandez Jr. said at the time, according to a transcript. "It was, at a minimum, a very arm's length relationship."

• • •

Amid all of that, there were allegations, never proven in court, that Feldman paid for introductions to prostitutes, including a 13-year-old runaway.

The girl's recovery by law enforcement officers in January 2001 revealed the existence of a teen sex ring operated by Tampa personal injury lawyer David Russell Stahl and his paralegal, Shawn Martin, now convicted sex offenders. Martin is still in prison.

Feldman would sometimes call asking for Stahl's "flavor of the day," knowing that his girlfriends were prostitutes, Martin said under oath during the investigation.

"Do you know anybody that can come over and hang out with me?" Feldman would ask, according to Martin's statements.

The paralegal provided names of several prostitutes he said he introduced to Feldman, including a 13-year-old.

"Oh, she looks young, are you sure that she is of age?" Martin recalled Feldman saying.

Martin responded that the girl was 18, he said under oath.

When he returned, he said, Feldman paid him $300.

Feldman, then 62, was arrested March 22, 2002, on three counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor. His booking card stated that he was 6-foot-2 and 278 pounds at the time.

He hired high-profile criminal defense lawyer Barry Cohen.

Stahl, in later court papers, claimed Feldman paid $1 million in lawyer fees.

According to Cohen, the proof didn't support the sex charge.

The state, after hearing Feldman's proposed defense, dropped the case.

Had it proceeded, Feldman would have said that he met the girl but didn't have sex because she seemed young, prosecutor Mike Sinacore explained at a related hearing for Stahl in 2005. Sinacore said Feldman also would have agreed that he paid.

"The problem," Sinacore said, "is that Dr. Feldman would pay Shawn Martin for introducing him to these girls regardless of whether they had sex."

Now 27, the girl spoke with the Tampa Bay Times under the condition that her name not be used. She said she remembers Martin taking her to Feldman's South Tampa home.

Only she and Feldman know if anything happened.

But her life got better. She returned to eighth-grade and grew up. And she heard recently about his federal drug case.

"This isn't some McDonald's worker," she said. "If you're an attorney, a doctor, a professional, you should be held to a higher standard."

• • •

Feldman, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story, provide a statement or refer the Times to friends who might speak on his behalf.

The few dozen friends listed on his Facebook page include former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who said Feldman's name isn't familiar. Some Facebook friends reached by the Times, including a pharmacist and a lawyer, said they didn't know him well enough to comment.

One correspondent called him kind and generous but would not agree to an interview.

A former neighbor from Knights Avenue, where Feldman lived the longest, characterized him as reclusive. The sex arrest was common knowledge. People kept their distance.

The 7,300-square-foot house went for $650,000 in a short sale last year, averting a scheduled foreclosure auction. Until deals were struck with two banks, Feldman owed about $1.9 million on a mortgage and equity line.

Buyer Scott Gargasz said the house wasn't habitable. The roof leaked. Windows were broken. None of the five air conditioning units worked.

Robin Piccolo, 43, stayed with Feldman on Knights Avenue after the doctor's hip surgery about seven years ago. They had known each other for years.

She described him as "quirky" and "awkward around people," but she said he had friends over sometimes. He had a theater room in his house with a ring of red leather recliners. He dated younger women and he liked to go out to Ybor City, she said.

She defends him. She said he once prescribed her pain medication but was insistent she get off it.

"I don't think he would ever prescribe anyone medication with the idea that it might kill them," she said.

They dramatically parted ways in December 2008.

Feldman told police Piccolo let herself into his house and robbed him at gunpoint. She said he owed her money. He didn't pursue charges. She wound up in prison, anyway, on an unrelated robbery charge and was recently released.

During that December encounter with police, Feldman mentioned something else.

He was dating a woman from Canada.

The woman, then Kim Xuan Nguyen, had been born in Vietnam.

Soon they would be husband and wife. And co-defendants.

• • •

That year, after decades of attending symposiums on back pain, nearly all of them in the United States, Feldman developed a sudden interest in cosmetic surgery and Vietnam.

He flew to Ho Chi Minh City for two weeks of liposuction training.

In October 2008, he incorporated the now-closed Forever Beautiful Medspa on 38th Avenue N in St. Petersburg.

He also had a pain management clinic, now called Feldman Orthopedic and Wellness Center, on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park.

He was straddling two of America's obsessions at once.

Before long, state and federal investigators were asking questions.

Libor Mark Kittler of Seminole, a patient, died of an overdose in March of 2009. He was 26. His mother later filed a complaint against Feldman, who had prescribed painkillers.

The following September, Feldman began prescribing controlled drugs to a woman in her 50s, known as P.B. in state records. A tipster told the state the dosages were extremely high. There is no indication she died.

Records reviewed by the Times show that at least 17 people in possession of prescriptions from Feldman have died of overdoses since 2009.

In at least seven cases, the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office specifically noted that the deceased patients had histories of drug abuse. At least three had drug arrests visible in Pinellas County jail records that predated the prescriptions bearing Feldman's name.

Federal authorities allege that he prescribed drugs to people who didn't medically need them.

Feldman had action on all fronts in 2010.

In May 2010, one of his lien holders filed papers to foreclose on his Knights Avenue home.

In July 2010, the state began to investigate his care of P.B. Within five months, he would be juggling two state licensing probes, both relating to his prescribing of pain medications.

In August 2010, he married the woman who would later be federally accused of helping him to hide the proceeds of an illegal drug conspiracy. Authorities would say the conspiracy had already begun by then.

She wore a white veil and he wore a watermelon-red shirt and dark pin-striped suit, looking simultaneously startled and exuberant as he towered over her.

His Facebook page went wild with a series of increasingly glamorous photos of the new Mrs. Feldman.

"She is a great model for my photography hobby," he wrote.

He was 70. She was 60.

He was a longtime bachelor if not a lifelong bachelor. Court records show no other local marriages.

"Something must be going well," friend Geoffrey Blake Steiner posted below a shot of the smiling couple.

It looked that way on Facebook.

• • •

The Department of Health offered him a chance to quietly resign after the P.B. complaint.

He didn't accept.

Two days after his wedding, he told a state investigator he was weeding out bad patients and that he was running a legitimate practice. He defended his care of P.B. and called it conservative.

One of his attorneys nearly reached a settlement that would have allowed Feldman to pay a fine, take some training and keep practicing.

But last summer the settlement offer vanished.

The emergency room doctor's complaint about powdered oxycodone had ripened into a monthslong investigation and the Department of Health's prosecution unit no longer wanted to suggest a deal to the Board of Medicine, records show.

It wasn't just powdered oxycodone that Davis brought up. He said Feldman was also operating a website called superpain doctor.com, no longer active. And he criticized Feldman's prescriptions for a 35-year-old stage hand who was later seen at Edward White Hospital, where Davis worked before it closed.

Feldman disputed the complaint in a brief response to the state that included, "I did not inappropriately or excessively prescribe controlled substances for Patient R.L"

Looming in the background was something larger than a licensing matter: an investigation by a Drug Enforcement Administration task force that had also been paying attention.

When a federal grand jury returned an eight-count indictment against the doctor on Dec. 10, naming Mrs. Feldman in five of those counts, the language was as much about money as about drugs.

Six weeks later, the U.S. Attorney's Office listed assets that could be subject to forfeiture upon conviction.

They included a Porsche 911, an Infiniti EX35, a Mercedes-Benz CLS550, and at least $787,000 in gold coins, jewelry and cash, much of it scattered in safe deposit boxes in Mrs. Feldman's name.

Prosecutors alleged that the Feldmans' Pinellas Park clinic and their current home in the Ballast Point neighborhood were purchased with proceeds of a conspiracy.

The indictment also listed the initials of three deceased patients: R.G., J.M., S.W.

• • •

More than a decade ago, Feldman stood in a federal courtroom in Tampa and faced U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday for sentencing in the kickback scheme.

Feldman's attorney, Fernandez, called him "deeply remorseful" about a crime committed late in life. Fernandez said Feldman, then 64, would probably lose his medical license.

"He's a good physician," Fernandez said. "There's never been much question about that."

Merryday put Feldman on probation and ordered him to pay a $10,000 fine.

"I take you at your word that I won't see you, again," the judge said.

"I don't think you will," Feldman answered.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Contact Patty Ryan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.

     
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