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Attorneys dispute police claims of wrongdoing at Tampa pain clinic

Tampa police raided this pain clinic at 2314 N Dale Mabry Highway the afternoon of July 26.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Tampa police raided this pain clinic at 2314 N Dale Mabry Highway the afternoon of July 26.

TAMPA — The attorney for a doctor accused of single-handedly prescribing 1 million oxycodone pills in three months at a Tampa pain clinic defended her Friday, saying she broke no law and is simply the victim of politics.

Kimberly Daffern, a 44-year-old West Point graduate, was arrested Wednesday along with two clinic owners and charged with racketeering, trafficking in a controlled substance and conspiracy to traffic in a controlled substance.

"This woman did not do anything wrong," attorney Chip Purcell said. "In our panic to deal with whatever perceived problem with pain clinics the government seems to have, they've basically caught up a dolphin in a tuna net."

In an effort to prove her innocence, Daffern provided results of a polygraph test to police, Purcell said.

Police accuse Daffern and clinic owners Jorge Gonalez-Betancourt and Michele Gonzalez of working at a "pill mill" at 2314 N Dale Mabry Highway, where records show doctors prescribed more than 2.4 million addictive pain pills in seven months.

All three are free on bail. Attempts to reach them at their homes Friday were unsuccessful.

The couple's attorney, Dale Sisco, said his clients followed the law and even employed a pain specialist who reviewed the medical records.

He said the reason it sometimes took patients three days to see a doctor was that their records were being checked. Patients who tested positive for any illicit drugs were turned away, Sisco said.

"People weren't just walking in and paying cash and getting prescriptions," Sisco said.

He said he wonders why police made the arrests Wednesday. After a raid on the clinic in July, owners closed the doors. Then, at a forfeiture hearing in August, a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge ordered police to return all seized money, reasoning that the clinic's high volume of out-of-state patients didn't necessarily prove illegal activity.

Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy defended the department's arrests.

"We conferred with the State Attorney's Office before making the arrests, and they approved the affidavit that establishes that a crime has occurred," she said.

Warrants have been issued for two other clinic employees, not yet arrested: clinic manager Maureen Green Altman, 55, of Lakeland, and William Joseph Pernas II, 21, of 8516 Woodlake Drive, Tampa.

Tampa attorney Michael Laurato said he expects that Altman will turn herself in Monday. She has no criminal record in Florida. Pernas was arrested, but not convicted, on charges of robbery and marijuana possession.

Daffern was the only medical doctor charged, though the clinic employed others. She prescribed more than half of the pain pills at 1st Medical Group, police said.

The St. Petersburg Times could not reach Daffern for comment. Messages left at her home and on her voice mail were not returned. Family members did not respond to interview requests.

Public records offer a glimpse of her educational and professional background.

Daffern, whose maiden name is Whittington, earned bachelor's degrees at both West Point and Ohio State University. In 1998, she graduated with a medical degree from Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a military school in Maryland, state records show.

As a member of the Army, she interned at Fort Gordon in Georgia and completed a residency in 2002 at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington.

Four years later, Daffern and her husband bought a Valrico house, which is now up for sale and valued at $186,000. She completed a residency in occupational medicine at the University of South Florida.

In the spring of 2010, she went to 1st Medical Group, a little clinic in a strip mall near Raymond James Stadium. She was paid $150 an hour at first, then later $2,000 in cash each day, police reported.

Of 5,790 patients who saw her, 99 percent walked out with prescriptions for oxycodone, an affidavit filed with her arrest warrant states.

Every day between May 1 and July 26 — including weekends — Daffern wrote oxycodone prescriptions, police say. On her busiest day, July 15, she ordered 123 prescriptions for a total of 27,330 oxycodone pills, police reported.

In those three months, police say she authorized a little more than 1 million oxycodone pills.

That's a lot for one doctor, said Bruce Grant, director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control, which has led Florida's crackdown on prescription drug abuse. (Grant's last day is Monday. Gov.-elect Rick Scott decided to close the drug office.)

"If you break that down into patients, then you start doing the math into how many tablets each of those folks get," Grant said, noting that the patients may not be using all of the drugs themselves.

Daffern, who has no previous criminal history in Florida, still has an active medical license.

The Florida Department of Health needs strong proof to suspend or revoke a physician's license, and an arrest alone is often not enough, Grant said.

"This is the very difficult part for people to understand," Grant said. "As you can imagine, these things get contested in a court of law and so they want to make sure that before they pull a license, there is an ironclad case."

The Tampa police affidavit provided a glimpse of what the state's case could include. In it, three unnamed police informers — all former patients — explained their interactions with Daffern.

One man, who came from Ohio, told police that when he visited the clinic, Daffern's first question was, "How many pills did you get at the other clinic?"

The only medical question Daffern asked was if the patient was allergic to any medication, the affidavit states. Then she wrote a prescription for 150 tablets of 30-milligram oxycodone, 90 tablets of 15-milligram oxycodone and 30 tablets of Xanax.

A second patient told police that during a July examination, the doctor made him do two movements, then engaged in negotiation about how many pills would be prescribed, the affidavit states.

A third patient told police that the exam lasted less than two minutes. Investigators reported that the patient left with orders for 240 tablets of 30-milligram oxycodone and 30 tablets of Xanax.

Times news researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

Attorneys dispute police claims of wrongdoing at Tampa pain clinic 12/31/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 31, 2010 9:53pm]
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