A South Florida doctor says he was "healing, not dealing" when federal agents raided the Hallandale Beach pain management clinic where he worked and seized his patient and business records.
Two years later, Dr. John Bennett hasn't been charged with any crime — though federal prosecutors hinted he may be — but he has taken a very unusual and aggressive step to fight back.
Bennett, 63, filed a civil action to try to force authorities to return his property and tip their hand about details of the investigation. He hired John Flannery, a lawyer from Leesburg, Va., who authored "Pain in America — and how our government makes it worse!" to represent him.
Agents raided the now-defunct Gulfstream Pain Center on the 300 block of East Hallandale Beach Boulevard in April 2011 and took office records and about 3,400 patients' files.
The clinic closed immediately and Bennett and a colleague gave up their Drug Enforcement Administration permits to prescribe drugs. Bennett has a valid medical license and is practicing, records show, though his attorney wouldn't say where.
Authorities say that three undercover officers who faked back pain were prescribed close to 1,800 oxycodone pills at the clinic.
The agents saw "patients who appeared to be high," patients from out of state, patients who said they resold their pills, a patient with a recent gunshot wound from a drug deal gone bad and patients who asked the officers to sell them their pills, prosecutors wrote.
"This is an ongoing investigation. It may not be moving at the pace he'd like," prosecutor Julia Vaglienti said Thursday in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. "But this district, this county and this state faces a serious problem with pill mills … and Dr. Bennett is just a small part of that problem."
Flannery said the investigation destroyed Bennett's reputation and his practice. He said Bennett "wants justice" and may file a civil suit seeking damages. Flannery claimed agents lied, and he insisted Bennett provided appropriate treatment for chronic pain.
"This was a legitimate medical practice that my client was involved in," Flannery said. Bennett said tests confirmed the officers who faked pain actually had back problems, his lawyer said.
Bennett's permit to prescribe drugs and his medical license were revoked in Florida, Rhode Island and Georgia in the 1980s after he was convicted of attempting to fraudulently obtain a controlled substance, prosecutors said. His privileges were reinstated in 1992, records show.
Prosecutors agreed Thursday to let Bennett copy the records they seized but resisted turning over a court-sealed sworn statement agents filed to persuade a judge to issue the search warrant.
Such records are sometimes sealed to protect witnesses or prevent criminals being tipped off, destroying evidence or fleeing beforehand.
U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum said she will rule on the unusual request in the next few weeks. She said the issue is "how long is too long" for prosecutors to keep investigative information secret and protecting the rights of people whether they have been criminally charged or not.
Vaglienti said the investigation of Bennett is not taking an unusually long time considering the number of patients and the amount of records. "Once Bennett has been charged with respect to his illegal prescribing at the pain clinic, he can seek to suppress any evidence," she wrote.
Flannery said the government is trying to "ambush" Bennett.
"The government … treated Dr. Bennett as if he were a drug kingpin who was moving narcotics, instead of the accomplished physician he is – treating and healing his patients," Flannery wrote.
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