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With problems in police case already, Tampa pain clinic asks charges be dismissed

TAMPA — Attorneys for a clinic already causing headaches for police asked Monday that the case be dropped entirely.

The development is another sign that prosecutors' campaigns to go after what they call illegal pill mills can be long and uphill.

The defense's argument: Just because 1st Medical Group was a high-volume pain clinic doesn't mean authorities have enough reason to bring criminal charges.

"This is a doctor practicing medicine in a way they don't like," Chip Purcell, the attorney for Dr. Kimberly Daffern, told Circuit Judge Ashley Moody.

Police accuse the clinic owned by Jorge Gonzalez-Betancourt and Michele Gonzalez on Dale Mabry Highway of prescribing more than 2.4 million addictive pain pills in seven months.

But defense attorneys say prosecutors have failed to specify how that's a crime.

Dale Sisco, the attorney for one of the clinic's married co-owners, said the 180-page charging document filed by prosecutors was vague and "nothing but a cookie-cutter template."

"This information is so bland, it's so vanilla, that it doesn't really tell us anything," Sisco said.

Prosecutors promised what they call "a mountain of additional information," including patient records and testimony from two doctors who believe the clinic was handing out too many prescriptions.

They say they'll be able to show that Daffern acted in "bad faith," meaning she did not provide the proper level of care.

"It's the clinic that's cookie-cutter," prosecutor Mike Schmid told the court. "They're the pill mill."

The hearing continues Wednesday. Moody is expected to rule on several motions including the one to dismiss.

Making a criminal case against doctors is not easy.

Last year, in the first case of its kind in Hillsborough County, prosecutors brought drug trafficking charges against Seffner doctor John Mubang after uncover detectives investigated his pain clinic.

The trial ended in a hung jury. Instead of a retrial, prosecutors offered to let Mubang enter a pretrial intervention program and keep his medical license.

One of Mubang's attorneys, Sisco, is involved in this case.

Defense attorneys in the 1st Medical Group investigation insist their clients, too, have a strong case.

Tampa police raided and shut down the office at 2314 N Dale Mabry Highway last July. Six months later, officers arrested Daffern and Gonzalez-Betancourt and Michele Gonzalez.

Not until this month, however, did Hillsborough prosecutors file charges in the case: 82 counts, including drug trafficking, conspiracy and racketeering against the three. Office manager Maureen Altman and clinic employee William Pernas face 11 and nine conspiracy charges respectively.

But along the way came a problem for the police's case:

In August, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Foster Jr. ordered Tampa police to return the more than $220,000 they seized from the clinic and Gonzalez-Betancourt's car and home during the raid. Authorities, the judge said, had not shown 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.

Earlier this month, the appeals court upheld Foster's ruling that the city return the money.

Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

With problems in police case already, Tampa pain clinic asks charges be dismissed 06/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 12:56am]

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