Trial of Ocala abortion doctor is political repression, NOW argues
In a bizarre criminal trial in Ocala, Dr. James Pendergraft, a gynecologist who owns five abortion clinics, is being charged with conspiracy to extort Marion County public officials. The trial started January 2 and continues as of this writing.
The "conspiracy to commit extortion" charges stem from the doctor's struggle to get Ocala police to defend his clinic and patients from protesters. Ocala police would not allow their officers to work for the clinic on off hours, although they are regularly hired by other businesses in the area to do the same work. Finally, Pendergraft sued Marion County for blocking his ability to protect his business. Ocala's previous abortion clinic was burned to the ground in 1989, but no-one was ever charged with the arson. Pendergraft arrives at work wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet. In Florida, two doctors and one escort have been killed by anti-abortion reactionaries.
National Organization for Women leaders speak in defense of Dr. James Pendergraft at his clinic in Ocala Jan. 2. L to r: Candi Churchill, Gainesville Area NOW president; Alexandra Leader, New York City NOW executive director, and Natalie Maxwell, UF/SFCC Campus NOW. Florida NOW President Toni Van Pelt also spoke.
In late 1997, one of Pendergraft's associates, Michael Spielvogel, said he was told by Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul that it was not a matter of "if" the Ocala clinic would be bombed, but "when." Pendergraft and his lawyer, veteran pro-choice attorney S. LeRoy Lucas, responded by saying they would add these new threats to their lawsuit and demanding more money in the settlement negotiations. This, according to the prosecutor, was conspiracy to extort. Pendergraft's defense attorney Jacob Rose responded in a press conference January 2, "Listen to the charges. You've never heard them anywhere else in the country, that a person's being charged with attempted extortion after having filed a lawsuit in which he's already prevailed in part. All he said is 'we're going to amend my lawsuit to seek full recovery because of information I learned ... of individuals ... threatening to do harm to my clinic.' That's it." Rose said that the government had secretly recorded numerous conversations to try to pin other charges on Pendergraft. "After they couldn't find anything, they went another avenue. It's a disgrace."
Feminist and abortion rights groups have come to Pendergraft's defense in the case. On the opening morning of the trial, abortion rights picketers walked back and forth in front of the courthouse, and Pendergraft's clinic, a few blocks away, sported a large rainbow-colored balloon stating "Dr. Pendergraft Is Innocent...stop attacking abortion providers." A banner on the building listed the organizations which support the doctor. Thirteen activists from Gainesville picketed and attended on the first day of the trial.
The following statement was released by the National office of the National Organization for Women on January 2, 2001: As the criminal trial of Dr. James Pendergraft begins, the National Organization for Women joins its members and allies in Florida in supporting this abortion provider's right to protection from harassment not only by violent protestors, but by local and federal government officials as well.
"As we approach the twenty-eighth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, women's reproductive freedom is still under attack from all sides," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "Government officials and clinic terrorists often work hand-in-hand to drive doctors out of business and out of town. What is happening in Ocala, Florida, right now is a compelling example of why women do not have access to abortion services in 89% of U.S. counties."
The local U.S. attorney's office has charged Dr. Pendergraft, who has five clinics in Florida, with lying under oath and conspiracy to commit extortion and mail fraud; the charges grew out of the doctor's civil suit against Marion County and the town of Ocala for their failure to protect employees and patients at his local facility. Dr. Pendergraft faces a possible 30 years in prison, loss of his medical license and a fine of more than a million dollars.
Dr. Pendergraft was met with hostility from the start in Ocala. The chair of the board of county commissioners, Larry Cretul, urged the doctor in a letter to "reconsider" opening the clinic. According to a sworn statement by Dr. Pendergraft's business associate, Cretul also asserted in conversation that it was not a question of "if," but only "when" the clinic would be firebombed. Arson attacks closed Ocala's only previous clinic in 1989, and no one has ever been charged with the crime. Once the clinic opened, the city police chief refused to allow the clinic to hire off-duty officers to work as security guards, protection routinely permitted to other businesses in the area. As a result, out-of-control protestors have wreaked havoc outside the clinic, frightening patients and staff and forcing Dr. Pendergraft to wear a bullet-proof vest and helmet.
"These criminal charges against Dr. Pendergraft, on what seems the flimsiest of evidence, appear to be just another way of trying to prevent him from providing reproductive health services in the state. All of his clinics are in jeopardy, as are the rights of women in Florida and across the country as a result of this prosecution," said Ireland.
"NOW supports the right of abortion providers to practice medicine with protection, not intimidation from government officials at all levels. We call upon Attorney General Janet Reno to review the action taken by the local U.S. attorney's office and bring to an end this government-sponsored harassment."
For trial updates: www.righttofight.org. Gainesville Area NOW can be reached at 377-9935.
L to R: Attorney Larry Colleton, Dr. James Pendergraft, attorney Jacob Rose.
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