Convicted Pill-Mill Pharmacist Claims Ignorance at 11th Circuit

ATLANTA (CN) — A defrocked pharmacist who supplied millions of opioids to patients of the bogus pain clinic across the street lobbed a “Hail Mary” appeal Thursday at the 11th Circuit, saying he was in no position to question the prescriptions coming in.

“Drugs were coming through the pharmacy pursuant to written orders,” Sydney Strickland, an attorney for ex-pharmacist Donatus Iriele, argued this morning before a panel of judges in Atlanta. “The jury had to be specifically instructed that the pharmacist had to know the prescription was bad.”

Attorneys for the government meanwhile told the panel their case was airtight.

The Medicine Center Pharmacy, which Iriele owned and operated in Atlanta with his wife, Rosemary Ofume, purchased 11 times more oxycodone than the average Georgia pharmacy in 2009 alone. Between 2009 and 2012, it had brought in more than 1.3 million opioid pills. More than 90% of the pharmacy’s revenue, about $5.1 million, came from prescriptions written across the street at the Atlanta Medical & Research Clinic.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurel Boatright told the 11th Circuit today that Iriele could have reported the clinic to regulators but chose instead to ignore the “enormous number of red flags.”

“Iriele all but conceded that the clinic was a bad clinic,” Boatwright said. “The only question was whether Iriele, a trained former pharmacist, knew the prescriptions were bad.”

According to an April 2017 statement from the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, Iriele’s pharmacy license was revoked in 2007 after it was discovered that he and his wife dispensed controlled substances pursuant to more than 1,400 forged prescriptions and failed to account for over 600,000 controlled substances pills.

U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes was quick to emphasize this background during arguments by Strickland, an attorney with Strickland Webster, who said the government plays fast and loose when it comes to Iriele’s license.

“The government treated [him] as a pharmacist throughout the course of the proceedings,” Strickland said. “It’s only after they’ve been called out on appeal that they admit he’s not a pharmacist.”

She added: “We believe there was not sufficient evidence that [Iriele] knew the prescriptions were bad.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Boatright pushed back against the claim that Iriele’s jury received bad instructions.

“The instructions are replete with references to [Iriele’s] knowledge and intent,” she said. “It’s simply not the case that the jury found Iriele guilty without any intent at all,” she added.

U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch joined Carnes on the panel. U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat, who was also included in the panel, was not present in the courtroom for reasons unknown.

The judges did not indicate when they will reach a decision in the case.

While Iriele was convicted in March 2017, sentenced to 20 years in prison, Ofume was sentenced to 19 years. Both were ordered to pay $2.5 million in restitution to the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Counsel.

Another husband-and-wife team, Godfrey and Bona Ilonzo, ran the clinic across the street from Iriele and Ofume’s pharmacy, one of eight clinics under the Atlanta Medical & Research Clinic name. The Ilonzos pleaded guilty to charges related to their roles in the conspiracy.

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