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Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Crime & Courts

Owners of Tampa pain clinic convicted of drug trafficking

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TAMPA — A doctor at a Dale Mabry Highway pain clinic wrote more oxycodone prescriptions in a six-month span than all the doctors in some entire states, officials say.

The owners and office manager of First Medical Group were convicted Thursday of multiple charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy, racketeering and operating a drug trafficking conspiracy. They face hundreds of years behind bars.

The doctor, Kimberly Daffern, didn’t go on trial because she died while the case was pending. The cause of death: drug overdose.

In a six-month period, prescriptions were written at the clinic for 2.3 million oxycodone pills, officials said. About 1.9 million of those pills were prescribed by Daffern.

Some clinic patients died of overdoses, too, officials said, but just how many was not available. Tampa police, at one point, said at least four clinic patients died of overdoses. Assistant State Attorney Darrell Dirks said a TPD analysis found 30 patients had died of various causes. Their average age was 34.

Dirks said TPD did another analysis, but department spokeswoman Laura McElroy said, “The exact number is under review.”

Clinic owners Jorge Gonzalez-Betancourt and his wife, Michele Gonzalez, as well as officer manager Maureen Altman were convicted in the culmination of a four-month trial in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Attorney Dale Sisco, who represents Gonzalez-Betancourt, said he plans to appeal. “Of course, we respect the jury’s verdict, but frankly, under the law, I don’t see how they could possibly convict my client or any of these defendants,” Sisco said. “The undisputed evidence at trial was that the physician was making all the clinical decisions. There was no evidence that any of these defendants did anything to influence any of the prescribing practices of the doctors.”

Sisco said his client testified in the trial that he wasn’t involved in any of the clinical decisions, and on the advice of attorneys and after consulting with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health, he put together a plan to eliminate attempts to divert clinic prescriptions to illegal use.

Dirks said evidence at the trial showed the clinic didn’t have documentation to support the high volume of potent pain prescriptions.

Sisco noted Circuit Judge Caroline Tesche threw out 53 of the 86 charges for insufficient evidence. Dirks said the charges involved clinic patients the state was unable to produce for trial testimony.

After Daffern was hired in early 2010, “business really started to boom,” Dirks said. He added that evidence in the trial demonstrated that 80 percent of her patients were prescribed high doses - 30 milligram strength - of oxycodone. A high percentage of those patients were given prescriptions for 240 pills.

“They had patients coming in from all over the country,” Dirks said. More patients came from out of state than from Florida. A high percentage were from Columbus, Ohio. “Word got around in Columbus,” Dirks said, “that was the place to go.”

In six months, the clinic saw a total of 3,800 patients. “There were more from the combined states of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee than were from Florida.” And even some who gave Florida addresses were actually from other states, Dirks said.

Dirks said drug traffickers testified that the clinic was on a circuit of known places to get prescriptions. The traffickers would travel down the east coast of Florida, to Miami and Florida and then up the west coast. When another notorious clinic was shut down, “the business at First Medical shot up,” Dirks said. “It skyrocketed.”

Gonzalez-Betancourt was first arrested July 26, 2010, on money-laundering charges after police raided his clinic and seized about $220,000.

Although police said the money came from writing large prescriptions of oxycodone, Circuit Judge Robert Foster ordered the department to return the money to Gonzalez-Betancourt, citing that the clinic had “a rotating staff of four licensed physicians whose work is overseen by a fellowship physician.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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