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In prison on drug charges, former Tampa pharmacist fights for license

TAMPA — When a federal judge sentenced pharmacist Christopher Switlyk to prison last year for his role in one of the nation's largest illegal pill mills, she faulted the U.S. Attorney's Office for not seeking forfeiture of the Tampa man's license.

"I just have a serious concern about him ever working as a pharmacist again," U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington said repeatedly during the hourlong hearing.

His attorney and a prosecutor assured the judge that Switlyk, 36, had surrendered his federal drug registration, and Switlyk offered up a letter in court showing his state license was under emergency suspension.

Yet he seems to be holding out hope for a return.

From prison, Switlyk has tried to persuade authorities on two fronts to lift sanctions against his medical credentials — even teleconferencing into a licensure hearing, federal and state records show.

Sanctions and criminal penalties were imposed after Switlyk pleaded guilty in 2012 to drug trafficking and money laundering charges. The government said his pharmacy dispensed 2.8 million doses of oxycodone over a 17-month period — about 35 times the national average.

He's scheduled to be free in five years, followed by three years of supervised release.

In the meantime, he has been fighting to rescue his state pharmacy license. He also appealed his exclusion from participation in federal health care programs such as Medicare, a 20-year ban imposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

His efforts have so far fizzled. On Wednesday, HHS rejected his latest appeal, calling Switlyk a "highly untrustworthy individual from whom the federal health care programs and their beneficiaries must be protected for an extended period."

On Monday, the Florida Board of Pharmacy filed an order revoking his license.

He can still ask for judicial review of both decisions.

J. Lawrence Johnston, the Tallahassee administrative law judge who recommended revocation, wrote that Switlyk had violated public trust and exposed people to harm.

But Johnston also noted that Switlyk could apply for a new license after his release from federal custody and supervision if he remains committed to treatment "for his alcohol abuse and psychological and emotional issues," among other requirements.

At the 2013 senten­cing hearing, Judge Covington foresaw such a scenario. She complained that Switlyk could reapply for his license "and there's nothing that anybody can do 10 years down the road."

She barred him from dispensing drugs during his three-year probationary period.

And she asked why prosecutors hadn't insisted on license forfeiture, which is sometimes part of plea negotiations when professionals break the law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathy Peluso called it an "oversight" at the time, a transcript shows. She couldn't be reached Friday.

Amy Filjones, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, checked Friday and said a forfeiture attorney who worked on the case knew the state had already begun to take action against Switlyk's license and didn't think forfeiture was necessary.

Switlyk, who has responded to other inquiries from the Tampa Bay Times through a prisoner email system, did not respond to questions posed for this report.

How likely is it that he could once again dispense controlled substances?

The Drug Enforcement Administration grants such authority, regulating a closed system of approved pharmacists. That's also the agency that filed a trafficking case against Switlyk.

Spokesman Rusty Payne said a pharmacist has to be in the good graces of a state medical board to get a DEA registration.

He can't imagine that happening for a pharmacist who went to prison for drug trafficking.

"Even if by some miracle he gets a thumbs-up in five or 10 years from the state medical board," Payne said, "we still have discretion."

Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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