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Feds close trial of opioid exec with recounting from phony pharmacist

The witness told jurors that Staten Island drug dealers would buy the pills steadily supplied by the defendant's company.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Prosecutors rested their case in chief Thursday in the country's first criminal trial of a former narcotics wholesale executive for felony drug trafficking. 

The government says Laurence Doud, as CEO of Rochester Drug Cooperative, told employees to ignore red flags from pharmacy customers that suggested potentially illicit operations. Those include unusually high orders, large percentages of high-dose opioids, and a suspiciously high number of patients paying cash. 

Doud, 78, faces one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, and one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S., which carries a maximum prison term of five years. 

Defense attorneys on Thursday morning called the lead pastor at Edgewater United Methodist Church in Florida, where Doud is an active member.

The Reverend Donna Blythe’s perception of an altruistic and community-oriented Doud contrasted the government’s assertions that greed drove his operations at Rochester Drug.

“He has many gifts and graces, and is generous with his time and service,” Blythe said of Doud. “He is well-known, well-respected, well-thought-of.”

Blythe said Doud goes out of his way to help the church community, including mowing the lawn and working in the food pantry ministry.

The former drug executive has been hesitant to take on leadership positions, Blythe noted, not wanting his federal criminal trial to reflect poorly on the church.

“Most people who know him well have great difficulty believing he’s in this situation,” Blythe said.

Before resting its case, the government on Wednesday summoned the former owner of Staten Island pharmacy Regal Remedies to the stand. Michael Paulsen, who was not a registered pharmacist, admitted to backdoor dealing in oxycodone, fentanyl and other controlled substances he bought from Doud's company. 

It was Rochester Drug's lower credit limit as compared with other distributors that led Paulsen to choose it as his supplier, he said. He testified that his pharmacist “basically slept most of the day,” so he filled prescriptions himself for patients who came 20 at a time and paid in cash — sometimes while showing signs of addiction.

“I had one person tell me how he was selling them,” Paulsen said, then Paulsen “unfortunately started going down the road of selling them.” Sometimes that meant selling pills without any prescription, and knowingly diverting pills to drug dealers. 

Paulsen ultimately pleaded guilty to running the drug ring, and was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. 

Internal emails showed that toward the end of 2016, Rochester Drug compliance employees flagged that more than 20% of Paulsen’s patients were paying cash, and he was working with questionable doctors. 

“Plus it's Staten Island,” one employee wrote. “Need I say more?” 

Rochester Drug didn’t cut off Paulsen’s supply over those red flags. Later, however, Paulsen admitted to fudging the numbers to get a higher supply, a point that defense attorneys made on cross-examination. 

“You were a street-level drug dealer, getting oxy to the street, even if it meant lying to your distributor?” attorney Derrelle Janey asked. 

“I didn’t have to lie to them the first year and a half,” Paulsen clarified, despite the fact that he was dealing with shady providers, and “RDC knew they were hot doctors.” 

Earlier, former employees testified that Doud was heavily involved in day-to-day and compliance matters, and instructed employees to release orders of controlled substances that had been flagged by the company’s ordering system. If a company exceeded its quota, Doud at times would raise the cap to allow the order to go through, a former compliance employee said. 

One of those testifying was William Pietruszewski, Rochester Drug’s compliance officer who pleaded guilty to a narcotics conspiracy, defrauding the government and failure to report suspicious pharmacy orders. 

Pietruszewski said Doud wanted to move quickly when starting to sell a pharmacy controlled substances, even if it meant “turning on” business before getting the pharmacy’s ordering data that’s required by company policy. 

“I have no idea if this is a good guy or a bad guy, but I do know in this case it is taking too long, no matter what the problem is,” Doud wrote of one pharmacy associate, according to court testimony. 

When Pietruszewski raised a concern that the company would be “vulnerable” if it didn’t review dispensing data before turning on accounts to controlled substances, Doud replied, “That is bullshit.” 

Jurors also heard from a former patient who testified through tears about her addiction to oxycodone, prescribed by a dirty doctor, and filling the prescription at a Rochester Drug-supplied pharmacy where she would run into familiar faces following the same illicit pipeline. 

Companies like Doud’s are meant to watch out for doctors running so-called pill mills and investigate pharmacies accepting their prescriptions. 

Both parties have asked former employees to read through dozens of emails that indicate Doud sent mixed signals to employees. At times, he fumed about how much compliance efforts were costing the company while offering no “return on investment.” 

In other cases, however, Doud gave kudos to employees for catching suspicious activity, and he hired outside consultants to help investigate pharmacies. 

Prosecutors entered Rochester Drug’s profit charts into evidence to demonstrate how the company’s revenue and Doud’s bonuses grew over time, as the company’s opioid business boomed. 

Doud’s attorneys have argued that the bulk of their client’s bottom line came not from narcotics, but from noncontrolled substances and pharmacy goods like “Band-Aids and knee braces.” During witness testimony, they have also questioned whether the DEA’s distributor reporting policy — specifically, the red flags it delineates — is clear enough in defining suspicious orders. 

Trial began on January 18. Closing arguments are expected next week.

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