Judge cites flaws as steroids case tossed

Soares to appeal ruling won by 5 Florida pharmacy operators

BRENDAN J. LYONS Senior writer
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Friday, September 12, 2008

ALBANY - A judge threw out a criminal indictment Thursday against five operators of an Orlando pharmacy who were identified by Albany County prosecutors as the primary targets of a multistate drug investigation that drew national attention.

The dismissal comes 19 months after a series of raids of wellness clinics and pharmacies in Florida ignited the professional sports world and led to the discipline of pro wrestlers, NFL figures and Major League Baseball players. Numerous celebrities also were among thousands of customers who obtained steroids, human growth hormone and other regulated substances from Orlando's Signature Compounding Pharmacy.

The judge's decision was handed down about three hours before a former New York Police Department officer, Anthony Forgione, pleaded guilty in an adjacent courtroom - and before a different judge - to a three-count felony indictment related to the same case.

Forgione, whose South Florida home was raided last fall, became the 17th person to plead guilty to felony charges in the case, which targeted 24 people. He admitted funneling phony prescriptions to Signature pharmacy, whose managers often solicited business through clinics such as Forgione's, records show.

Still, the stinging decision by Albany County Judge Stephen W. Herrick in the Signature case cites a series of missteps in the grand jury proceedings by the district attorney's office, and prohibits prosecutors from presenting the case again to another grand jury.

District Attorney David Soares said his office intends to appeal the judge's dismissal and is "confident" the case will move forward.

"We believe with this appeal we're going to be right back here litigating this matter in a few months," Soares said.

The indictment had been brought against Stan and Naomi Loomis, the husband-and-wife operators of Signature; Michael Loomis, who is a pharmacist at Signature and Stan's brother; Kirk Calvert, the company's former business manager, and Anthony Palladino, another former manager.

"This has been a very long ordeal for Naomi and Stan Loomis, and I'm really happy for them that it's over," said Brian W. Devane, an Albany attorney who handled the case for the couple.

Herrick's dismissal will not undo the guilty pleas to felony charges by more than a dozen doctors and operators of so-called wellness centers, who had struck deals and agreed to testify against the operators of Signature pharmacy.

In addition to the felony convictions of six physicians, the sprawling investigation by the state Health Department's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and the Albany County district attorney's office shut down several wellness centers in Florida, New York and Texas. It also resulted in cash seizures and forfeitures of almost $1 million, which authorities said was the largest on record for the district attorney's office.

Despite their success in netting convictions, prosecutors and law enforcement investigators have privately and publicly stated that the pharmacy operators were the primary targets in the more than three-year investigation.

Also, the people who pleaded guilty during the past 18 months had agreed to testify against the Signature defendants, and most had their sentencings adjourned pending the outcome of that cooperation.

The legal troubles for Signature pharmacy are not over: People familiar with the multistate investigation said federal and state authorities in Florida are pursuing criminal charges as part of a related investigation by the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation in Orlando.

In his decision, Herrick characterized the case as unwieldy, complex and riddled with problems in the manner in which it was presented to two separate grand juries since January 2007. In all, there have been four indictments against the Signature defendants, with many of the counts being dismissed earlier by the court.

He said prosecutors' instructions to the grand jury were "misleading" when the panel was not told that earlier charges had been thrown out.

Herrick did not address the merits of the criminal charges in his decision, which focused largely on how evidence and charges were presented to the grand juries that handed up the indictments.

"The court finds that the amorphous quality of the evolving indictments, coupled with the cursory and inadequate instructions in the fourth presentment have impaired the integrity of the Grand Jury proceedings to such a degree that dismissal is warranted," Herrick wrote.

Herrick also presided in several cases in which doctors, wellness center operators and others pleaded guilty in his courtroom to writing phony prescriptions that were doled out by Signature pharmacy.

In the past 18 months, numerous pro athletes and celebrities were identified as customers of the steroids distribution network in reports by the Times Union and the San Francisco Chronicle, both owned by the Hearst Corp.

Athletes who purchased either steroids, human growth hormone, or both, included New England Patriots all-pro safety Rodney Harrison, Dallas Cowboys quarterback coach Wade Wilson, major league pitcher Paul Byrd, journeyman outfielder Jose Guillen, retired third baseman Matt Williams and pitcher Ismael Valdez, according to the published reports.

A Palm Beach County wellness center, Palm Beach Rejuvenation, also did millions of dollars worth of business with Signature pharmacy, and its client list for steroids included numerous professional wrestlers, some of whom - like Harrison and Wilson - were disciplined after their names surfaced in the investigation.

Six people connected with Palm Beach Rejuvenation, including its owners and two physicians, pleaded guilty in the case.

Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at blyons@timesunion.com

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