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Tampa pill mill pharmacist tells court his attorneys didn't get it right

Christopher Switlyk wants his prison sentence vacated.
Christopher Switlyk wants his prison sentence vacated.
Published Mar. 26, 2014

TAMPA — Disgraced pharmacist Christopher Switlyk shows no love for the attorneys who defended him over his key role in a Tampa pill mill ring.

From prison, he calls Todd Foster's $750,000 fee "excessive" and his advice, at times, "awful." Switlyk blames attorney Steve Crawford for his bail revocation. He suggests it was sneaky of Jeff Brown to get paid in silver bars and gold Krugerrands.

Switlyk, 35, wants a do-over. In a pending federal court motion, he claims bad lawyering while asking a judge to withdraw his 2012 guilty plea and vacate his nine-year sentence.

Such last-ditch efforts are common in both federal and state courts. But Switlyk's sniping tale of his handling by three reputable bay area defense lawyers has tongues wagging. And Brown, who recalls when his former client was facing 24 to 30 years, not nine, isn't pleased with what he calls Switlyk's "fabrications."

Switlyk and co-conspirators — one of whom got 15 years — made more than $10 million feeding the public's appetite for oxycodone, by the government's estimate. His VIP Pharmacy was said to dispense nearly 2.8 million doses of the drug from January 2009 to May 2010, about 35 times the national average.

"He ran the largest illegal pharmacy in the country, contributing to the illegal distribution of millions of controlled substances into the Tampa Bay area and probably should have gotten a sentence over 30 years," Brown said after the Tampa Bay Times asked about the case's latest turn.

"Apparently, the ingratitude of some clients is indeed infinite."

Fellow defense attorney Crawford declined to comment.

Foster said this much:

"I strongly dispute the suggestions in the pleading and will be responding to the court."

None of the three has a Florida Bar disciplinary record. Brown defended the Rev. Henry J. Lyons on federal fraud and tax-evasion charges. Foster represented abortion pill defendant John Andrew Welden, among other high-profile clients. And Crawford argued a Haines City murder case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.

A former FBI agent and prosecutor who turned to defense work 20 years ago, Foster said he has never before been the subject of what federal courts call a 2255 Motion. It's named for a section of U.S. Code that allows a prisoner to claim a sentence was imposed in violation of the law or Constitution. The Sixth Amendment guarantees legal counsel.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa fielded 308 such motions last year. Some prisoners have other reasons for filing, but most of the time it's a claim of ineffective counsel, a spokesman said.

Switlyk offered up 56 typed pages of lawyerly ineffectiveness, noting all the times he made suggestions that went unheeded. A condensed version of the motion was referred to Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli.

Switlyk alleges unfulfilled promises by all three attorneys, conflicts of interest (Foster), violation of attorney-client privilege (Brown), blocked efforts to cooperate with prosecutors (Foster, Crawford), intentional sabotage (Brown), and a preoccupation with legal fees (Foster, Brown).

He says Foster stood in the way of his cooperation with prosecutors because Foster or his firm (at the time, Cohen & Foster) represented some of the co-defendants Switlyk might have incriminated.

He describes fees of $750,000 charged by Foster, $50,000 to $200,000 by Crawford, and at least $160,000 by Brown — partly paid in the South African gold coins called Krugerrands.

Switlyk wrote that Brown wanted to be paid "off the books."

Brown acknowledges he was paid in silver and gold, but says that's not illegal. It's no different from accepting a mortgage or a car in payment for legal services, he said. "I pay taxes on it," he said. "I put it in my firm account."

Brown had the case for nine months. Switlyk had at least four prior attorneys. The defense started with Dirk Weed (two days), then went to Foster (17 months), Greg Kehoe (two months) and Crawford (four months), Switlyk writes.

One of Brown's first moves, court records show, was to lobby in June 2012 for the return of Switlyk's blanket, underwear and socks in the Pinellas County Jail, which had been taken away because something he said was interpreted as a suicide threat.

Eight months later, after the sentencing, Switlyk wrote Brown a flattering letter, saying, "You are by far the best attorney that I have ever met and I am continuously impressed by all your knowledge and experience."

In those days, early 2013, Switlyk expressed hope that prosecutors would reward him by seeking further sentence reductions for his help building cases against others in the drug conspiracy.

Already, his nine-year sentence reflected credit for leading Drug Enforcement Administration agents to more than $6 million.

Even in jail, he helped the investigation along by redacting documents. But Switlyk lost credibility by using a jail computer to access a gambling website and writing to the prosecutor while pretending to be someone else, Brown said.

Switlyk got no more breaks.

Sentencing came, and he went away.

Sour grapes fermented in the southern town of Estill, S.C., home to a federal prison and, now, a defrocked pharmacist with an awful lot of complaints.

Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or pryan@tampabay.com.

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