A federal magistrate has shot down two doctors’ claims that vindictive federal prosecutors accused them of killing patients in order to punish the doctors because they wouldn’t accept plea deals.
In a 15-page ruling, Magistrate William Matthewman rejected long-standing assertions by Drs. Cynthia Cadet and Joseph Castronuovo that prosecutors trumped up charges that could send them to prison for life simply because they chose to exercise their constitutional right to prove their innocence at trial.
Noting that the federal court system would collapse if prosecutors couldn’t entice defendants to accept plea deals, Matthewman said he found no evidence that prosecutors retaliated against the two doctors. Both were swept up as part of an investigation into a massive pill-mill operation that sent 11 doctors and 19 others to prison.
“It is commonplace that a defendant can expect to get a more favorable sentence for a plea bargain than from proceeding to trial and losing; were it otherwise, few defendants would forgo their right to a trial,” Matthewman wrote, quoting past court decisions.
However, the doctors’ attorneys, who are urging U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra to reject Matthewman’s recommendation, said this was no ordinary deal.
From the start, Cadet, who was honorably discharged as a medical officer from the Air Force in 2002, made it clear she wouldn’t plead guilty to any crime connected to her work at pain clinics operated by Wellington twins Jeff and Christopher George. Initially charged with four crimes that each carried a maximum sentence of 20 years, Cadet in July was charged with writing prescriptions for narcotics that caused the overdose deaths of seven patients.
“If you plea we’ll give you a break, but if you don’t we’ll hammer you,” her attorney, Michael Weinstein, said of the attitude of prosecutors.
Castronuovo, who earned his medical degree from Georgetown University and was an assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine, got the same treatment after he backed out of a plea deal, said his attorney, Thomas Sclafani. Once facing a maximum five years in prison for mail fraud, the 73-year-old Key Largo resident in July was charged with killing two patients.
Weinstein said federal prosecutors repeatedly tried to strong-arm Cadet. They tried to keep her in jail, telling a federal judge the 42-year-old Parkland woman was a flight risk. They embarrassed her by parading her in front of the media in handcuffs while the other doctors were allowed to turn themselves in. Further, when other defendants tried to tell prosecutors Cadet was clueless about the far-flung operation, prosecutors silenced them. Oddly, Weinstein said, the same defendants will be called to testify against her in hopes of getting time shaved off their sentences.
“There is no doubt that the government has gone through great effort to solicit information from Dr. Cadet’s co-defendants which could potentially inculpate her, yet when potentially exculpatory information was offered, it seems it went ignored,” Weinstein wrote in court papers he filed last week to oppose Matthewman’s recommendation.
Unlike with Cadet, prosecutors initially showed little interest in Castronuovo, Sclafani said. During a hearing last January, prosecutors told Marra they intended to charge Castronuovo with a more serious crime than mail fraud. But, they said, he wouldn’t be charged with causing any patient deaths. Those charges would be reserved for Cadet, they said. Those promises proved false when the new indictment was handed up in July, Sclafani said.
If prosecutors are seeking justice for those who died, the new charges don’t make sense, Sclafani said. Prosecutors said more than 50 people died of overdoses as a result of the George brothers’ operation that drew people from as far as Tennessee and Kentucky. While a doctor was charged in state court with causing a patient death, none of the doctors who pleaded guilty to federal charges was accused of killing patients.
“Why then was the 72-year-old Dr. Castronuovo singled out for such special treatment? According to the record in this case, and not the mere conjecture of the defense, the government sought to retaliate against him for standing his ground,” Sclafani wrote in his rebuttal to Matthewman’s recommendation.
Without addressing some of the specific allegations Weinstein and Sclafani raised, Matthewman said judges shouldn’t second-guess prosecutors. “Whatever the government’s motive in bringing the initial charge, it is not relevant to the matters at issue,” he wrote. “In our adversarial system of justice, the prosecutor has nearly limitless discretion in deciding whom to prosecute and what charges to bring.”
Sclafani said he expects Marra to decide whether to accept Matthewman’s recommendation by early February. Cadet and Castronuovo are scheduled to be tried in June.