VERO BEACH — A Vero Beach pain clinic at the center of a yearlong statewide investigation that resulted in the arrest of 14 people this week handed out an estimated 2 million pills in a year, Florida Department of Health officials said Thursday.
According to details released Thursday, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration said up to 60 people a day visited the Stuart Pain Management Center Inc., on U.S. 1 in Vero Beach. And the DEA is alleging the center freely handed out prescriptions for medications on a cash-only basis.
Investigators described the center as being part of a statewide network that allegedly prescribed oxycodone, Xanax, Valium and other drugs throughout Florida, federal officials said.
It was so easy to get drugs from the center, the DEA said, undercover agents went in undetected despite wearing audio and video recorders during physical exams and telling the doctor they didn't have serious pain, records show.
Using aliases, two DEA investigators and a Port St. Lucie Police detective began visiting the clinic on Aug. 15, according to an arrest warrant affidavit released Thursday.
The first to arrive was a DEA agent. The agent was made to provide a drivers license, prescription history, proof of residency and $250. When the agent offered a cash payment to avoid the residency requirement, the clinic receptionist declined, according to documents released Thursday.
After an examination by staff physician, Dr. Bruce Kammerman, of Palm City, the agent left with prescriptions for 112 oxycodone pills, 30 Valium and 30 ibuprofen, the affidavit states.
The same day, another agent arrived at the clinic posing as a patient. When the receptionist noted his drivers license had a Fort Lauderdale address, the agent provided a fictitious gas bill that listed a Sebastian address. He left with a prescription for 120 Percocets and 30 Valium.
A Port St. Lucie Police detective visited the clinic Aug. 29. She was referred to a neurologist and prescribed 120 oxycodone pills, 30 Valium and 30 ibuprofen, according to documents released Thursday.
The three kept follow-up appointments at the Vero Beach clinic when their pain medications were due to run out. According the affidavit, Kammerman asked all three why their urine samples had tested negative for the drugs he prescribed. They replied that they had run out early because of taking more than the prescribed dosages.
One allegedly also told Kammerman she borrowed extra pills from a friend and asked him to write her a prescription for extra pills so she could reimburse the lender. It is unclear from the affidavit whether this request was granted.
Kammerman advised all three patients against taking more than the prescribed dosages. But all three got additional prescriptions for pain medications despite having "little, if any, physical medical need for such a power pain killer," the affidavit states.
The affidavit included statements by Dr. Harold Cordner, a DEA-certified expert witness who reviewed video, audio and reports generated by undercover officers visiting the Stuart Pain Management Center.
Cordner started seeing a pattern "where all three 'patients' with no actual pain and normal physical exams and fairly normal findings were prescribed, and continued to be prescribed, oxycodone and Valium ... despite every patient admitting to running out early and having urine drug screens negative for all prescribed substances every time they present to the clinic."
On Thursday all 14 defendants in the case were in custody and DEA spokeswoman Mia Ro said they will be brought to Indian River County for prosecution by state prosecutors.
Four of the defendants already are in the Indian River County Jail including Kammerman, whose medical license was suspended Tuesday by the state Department of Health. The suspension order contends he ranked 12th in the state in prescribing oxycodone through the Florida Medicaid program from January to April 2011.
Also in the Indian River County Jail is Pompano Beach firefighter Lewis Stouffer, 32, of Coconut Creek, who the DEA says headed up the multimillion-dollar network that allegedly extended from Miami to the Florida Panhandle.
The DEA says Stouffer allegedly used his image as a firefighter to make the operations look legitimate, but "his enterprise had just one purpose: to make money from illegal drug trafficking and the financing of illegal drug trafficking throughout Florida."
The crackdown, on Wednesday, seized 59 bank accounts containing $1.1 million.
The defendants face a total of 144 alleged violations of Florida law including racketeering, trafficking, illegal prescribing, money laundering and Workers' Compensation fraud.
Attorneys for Kammerman and others in the Indian River County Jail say their clients are innocent.
Stouffer's fellow firefighter Craig Turturo, a father of three children, was arrested and is in the Indian River County Jail. Turturo "looks forward to vindicating himself," said Turturo's
attorney Robert Nicholson, of Fort Lauderdale. "The allegations brought by the state are completely unfounded in regard to Turturo."
Kammerman's attorney, James Regan, said Kammerman "cared for his patients and did not deviate from reasonable standards of medical care. He will be vindicated. My client was caught in the middle of a maelstrom and there are other actors who are culpable."
But by late afternoon Thursday, Regan filed a court motion to be taken off the case, saying he and his client were in disagreement over how to hand the case.
Kammerman is being held in jail in lieu of a $790,000 bail while Turturo and Stouffer are each under $1 million bails.
If they do pay their bails, Circuit Judge Robert Pegg has ordered they must prove that none of the money was illegally obtained and they must surrender their passports and wear GPS devices.
Before Regan asked to be taken off the case, he filed motions asking the courts to restrict press access to pretrial hearings and to keep the state from filing written statements from witnesses.
The first appearance hearings for those in the Indian River County Jail are scheduled for Aug. 20. The others will be extradited to the county to face charges, court officials said.
The statewide case will be prosecuted by a special statewide prosecutor, from the Attorney General's office, and by the local state attorney's office.
The Vero Beach Police Department began watching the clinic in Vero Beach when it opened in 2010. That led to a yearlong, statewide investigation that included court-ordered wiretaps to listen in on tens of thousands of phone conversations by people in key positions in the network.
According to the investigation, the network allegedly recruited doctors to prescribe medically unnecessary narcotics. And Stouffer, according to county documents, told his co-conspirators how to make themselves look legitimate to regulators, such as reporting their competition for violations. Meanwhile, Stouffer allegedly got a percentage of the clinic's income for his services as "the brains of the operation," DEA spokeswoman Ro said.The city of Vero Beach wasn't the only Treasure Coast city considered as a location for the Stuart Pain Management Center.
In early March 2010, the city of Stuart received an application from Karlin to open a center in the 600 block of Southwest Federal Highway, according to Adrienne Parker, city of Stuart planning and business technician.
However, the application was never approved or rejected.
Instead, it was placed on hold because the Stuart Commission on March 22, 2010 enacted a moratorium on the opening of new pain management clinics in the city, Parker said.
"At the time there was freeze because there was a zoning ordinance change that would limit where pain clinics could open. The application was never completed," she said.
The actual application could not be located but Parker said its receipt was noted in city records.
Alan Friedrich, the owner of the Stuart site where the men proposed opening a pain clinic, expressed relief he didn't lease to the men.
"All I can say is I guess I was lucky," said Friedrich, who said he doesn't remember the men's names, just the name of the proposed center.
Friedrich said he wasn't surprised the men found another location.
"When that happened, they said they couldn't wait and they were going up to St. Lucie and Indian River counties," Friedrich said.
Staff writer Keona Gardner contributed to this report.