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Tampa pain clinic owners facing drug trafficking, racketeering charges

TAMPA — In July, police raided and shut down a Dale Mabry Highway pain clinic they suspected of being a pill mill. Six months later, officers arrested the co-owners and a physician.

But Hillsborough prosecutors did not follow up by actually filing charges until this week — and the case looks like a big one: 82 counts, including drug trafficking, conspiracy and racketeering against the 1st Medical Group married co-owners Michele Gonzalez and Jorge Gonzalez-Betancourt and a doctor, Kimberly Daffern.

Office manager Maureen Altman and clinic employee William Pernas, face 11 and nine conspiracy charges respectively.

But Michael Laurato, an attorney for two of the defendants, called the 178-page charging document a ploy by prosecutors:

The charges were filed Wednesday — the day before an appeals court heard arguments on whether Tampa police must turn over the more than $220,000 that was seized from the clinic and Gonzalez-Betancourt's car and home.

A Hillsborough Circuit Court judge said in August that there was no evidence that the money was related to any criminal activity or that the clinic was operating illegally.

The city appealed that decision to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

Laurato said authorities are trying to use the newly filed criminal charges to gain leverage in that forfeiture case.

"It's an entirely vindictive presentation," said Laurato, who represents the clinic and Michele Gonzalez. "It's complete and total abuse of power by the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office."

Hillsborough State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox declined to comment on the case.

Police have said 1st Medical Group gave free prescriptions and office visits to recruiters who brought in out-of-state clients and homeless people.

Authorities allege that at least five people died of overdoses from pills obtained with prescriptions from 1st Medical, accused of prescribing 2.4 million pain pills in the first seven months of 2010.

The new documents filed by prosecutors this week do not contain much new information about the case.

Laurato said authorities just beat a 175-day deadline from the arrest date to file charges. The clinic, which had been located at 2314 N Dale Mabry Highway, has not operated since July, and Laurato said authorities still have its equipment.

He said he would file a motion to dismiss the case before the defendants are arraigned.

Tampa pain clinic owners facing drug trafficking, racketeering charges 06/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 3, 2011 11:13pm]

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