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Abortion doctor accused of fraud

The physician sued Marion County, where now he faces charges of extortion and mail fraud.

As one of Florida's best-known abortion providers, Dr. James Scott Pendergraft is no stranger to courtrooms.

He once successfully sued Orlando after he was blocked from opening a clinic. He sued Marion County and Ocala two years ago, claiming their law enforcement agencies weren't allowing off-duty officers to moonlight at his clinic there. He also filed a separate lawsuit demanding a buffer zone from anti-abortion protesters at the Ocala clinic.

In an unusual twist, Pendergraft now finds himself on the other side of the law, defending himself against criminal charges of conspiracy to commit extortion, mail fraud and making false statements. Federal prosecutors accuse Pendergraft and a consultant of lying under oath in an effort to extort an excessive settlement from Marion County officials in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.

Pendergraft's trial and that of his adviser, Michael Spielvogel, begin Tuesday in Ocala, a small city of about 50,000 people about 60 miles northwest of Orlando.

Abortion rights advocates say the criminal case is retaliation for Pendergraft's effort to get better law enforcement for his clinic, where there are daily protests.

"This is the only case of its kind that I know of," said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation, a Washington-based association of abortion providers.

Pendergraft says he is innocent. "I have not done anything that I thought was illegal or criminal," said Pendergraft, who wears a bulletproof vest when he is in Ocala.

In a business that would rather not draw attention to itself, Pendergraft has opened five clinics in Florida and used nontraditional methods of marketing his services. He has distributed condoms at Orlando nightclubs with the name of his clinic on the cover, put up billboards and set up a Web site.

Spielvogel, a real estate consultant for Pendergraft, claims Marion County Commission Chairman Larry Cretul threatened him. In a sworn affidavit taken Feb. 24, 1999, Spielvogel claimed that Cretul told him in a threatening manner that he wouldn't send his family to Ocala if he were in Spielvogel's shoes. Spielvogel also claimed that Cretul alluded to arsons and bombings at abortion clinics. Spielvogel reported the alleged comments to the FBI.

Pendergraft gave a supporting affidavit saying Spielvogel had repeated the statements to him.

What happened next led to the charge of conspiracy to commit extortion. Pendergraft's attorney, Roy Lucas, sent a letter to Marion County attorney Virgil Wright, hinting he would include Cretul's alleged comments in the lawsuit and seek damages against Cretul and the county. He suggested they meet to talk about settling Pendergraft's lawsuit against the county.

A subsequent meeting at Wright's office was videotaped by FBI agents without the knowledge of Pendergraft, Spielvogel or Lucas. The videotape will be a crucial piece of evidence at the trial.

Spielvogel's attorney, Dan Brodersen, didn't return calls to his Orlando office. Cretul didn't return a phone call. Bob Mosakowski, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said he couldn't comment on the specifics of the case. If convicted, Pendergraft faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and fines of $750,000. Spielvogel, who faces the same charges plus two charges of making false statement to the FBI and a grand jury, faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison and $1.25-million in fines.