In 1989 Ocala's only abortion clinic was destroyed by a firebomb. Nearly 10 years later someone was brave enough to set up another abortion clinic there. Now that establishment is in danger, but not from a bomb or even from local protesters' threats. The problem has come from federal prosecutors.
Dr. James Pendergraft is being charged with conspiracy to extort money from Marion County, based on comments he allegedly made while suing the county for not adequately protecting his Ocala abortion clinic. Pendergraft operates five Florida clinics, two of which are in Orlando. He's an accomplished ob/gyn trained in high-risk pregnancies, and he is unflinching in his fight to eliminate any barriers to performing a procedure that the U.S. Supreme Court declared legal more than 25 years ago. Yet he continues to face roadblocks to his practice. The difficulty he had opening his first Orlando clinic may have given him a taste of things to come.
In 1995, Orlando city officials weren't happy to learn that Pendergraft planned to open an office near Lucerne Circle. After he renovated the building, officials rejected his application to open a medical office. They argued that the recovery time for certain procedures required a license for a clinic, not an office, and the area was zoned only for offices and homes. Pendergraft sued, eventually receiving $325,000 and his business license.
Such tactics are familiar territory in the abortion wars. "Unfortunately, there are communities in this country where hostile government officials refuse to provide protection" to abortion providers, says Vicki Saporta, director of the National Abortion Federation. Saporta reels off some of the typical offenses: not allowing off-duty police officers to work as security guards at clinics; not enforcing injunctions; not enforcing trespassing laws.
Pendergraft's Orlando experience might not have been unique, but in general his way of conducting business lends itself to controversy. He markets his clinics on billboards. He doesn't hide the fact that he performs abortions as late as 28 weeks into pregnancy. At Orlando clubs he has distributed condoms promoting his clinic. Naturally, his bold stance infuriates the antichoice ranks, but it also causes some prochoicers to bristle. Pendergraft is seen as too aggressive in his competitive tactics and too unabashed in his pursuit of profits. His public comments are blunt. He doesn't lie low. He's been accused of engaging in the McDonaldization of abortion. As a result, other abortion providers praise his medical skills but tend to keep their distance.
Nonetheless, all abortion providers are joined together by the harassment and the threats they must face on an ongoing basis. Pendergraft, after all, wears a bulletproof vest to work. He had been included on a bloody-looking anti-abortion website, since shut down, that listed the names of abortion providers -- with black lines through the names of those killed.
"I didn't really know what I was getting into in Ocala," Pendergraft told the St. Petersburg Times two years ago, "but I probably would have done it anyway if I had. Probably."
He opened his clinic there in 1998, even though it was clear that county officials didn't want him. "What they did," says Pendergraft's spokesperson, Marti Mackenzie, "was send him a letter saying please don't come to our community -- and it was on official stationery." Not only have protesters gathered outside the clinic on a daily basis, but Pendergraft has had difficulty getting plumbers, painters and such to work for him there.
In late 1998 Pendergraft sued Ocala and Marion County for not allowing off-duty police officers to work as security guards at the clinic. He also wanted a buffer zone from the daily protesters who waved signs, pushed baby carriages and photographed women entering the clinic. He won a preliminary injunction in the security-guard issue, but his lawyer, S. LeRoy Lucas, let the case languish. "Roy Lucas failed to meet certain deadlines," Mackenzie explains. The case therefore was dismissed a year ago.
But that case turned out to be the basis of the charges recently brought against Pendergraft and his associate Michael Spielvogel.
Spielvogel had informed the FBI that he was being threatened by Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul. The FBI determined, however, that Spielvogel was lying, and they began audio and video taping conversations that Pendergraft and Spielvogel had with Ocala officials.
Now, based on those conversations, the two men are charged with conspiring to extort millions of dollars from Marion County by making false and fraudulent statements in an attempt to win a big settlement in Pendergraft's civil lawsuit. If found guilty, Pendergraft could face 30 years in prison, the loss of his medical license and a $750,000 fine.
The basis of the prosecution's case? Attorney Lucas, in trying to negotiate a big settlement from the city for its lack of protection, reportedly stated he would "try to bankrupt the county," with Pendergraft chiming in, "Not try. We will bankrupt the county."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Deveraux, who is prosecuting the case, did not return phone calls.
Pendergraft's supporters insist that the case is about abortion, not extortion -- that a conservative local government has managed to get the U.S. Justice Department involved in its crusade to run Pendergraft out of town. Spokesperson Mackenzie notes that there are basic similarities between what the doctor went through in Orlando and what he's currently experiencing in Ocala: "In both cases Dr. Pendergraft was aggressively sent a message" that he was unwelcome. In the case of Marion County, she adds, "These are anti-abortion people, elected officials, trying to impose their personal agendas to discourage Dr. Pendergraft."
Saporta, of the National Abortion Federation, says, "The prosecution appears to be calculated to punish Dr. Pendergraft for pursuing his legal rights." She fears the result will be a "chilling effect" -- that abortion providers will be "discouraged . ... from taking legal action that could be critical to their own protection."
The trial is set to begin Jan. 2.