Ex-pharmacist pleads ignorance in court of appeals


A former pharmacist who was jailed for dispensing opioids to customers of a “pill mill” pain clinic, and ordered to pay $3.71m in restitution, is attempting to appeal his 20-year sentence

In July 2017, US pharmacists Donatus Iriele and Rosemary Ofume were sentenced to 20 years and 19 years in prison, respectively, for illegally dispensing controlled narcotics to customers of a “pill mill” pain clinic in Atlanta, Georgia.

The husband and wife formerly owned a pharmacy that was located across the road from the pain clinic.

Between 2009 and 2012, the pharmacy purchased 1,360,410 opioid pills.

In 2009, the amount of oxycodone that the pharmacy purchased was 11 times more than the average pharmacy in the state of Georgia.

Customers would wait for hours at the pain clinic and paid cash to receive prescriptions for oxycodone/hydrocodone, Xanax, and carisoprodol before purchasing the pills at high prices from Ms Ofume and Mr Iriele’s pharmacy, according to the US Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Georgia.

More than 90% of the pharmacy’s revenue, about US$5.1 million (AUD$7.6 million), came from prescriptions written at the pain clinic across the street.

Mr Iriele had been dispensing the medicines when he was not authorised to do so as his licence had been revoked in 2007, after the Georgia Board of Pharmacy found he and his wife had failed to account for more than 600,000 controlled substances pills at their pharmacies and had dispensed controlled substances pursuant to more than 1,400 forged prescriptions.

The Board temporarily suspended Ms Ofume’s pharmacy license for the same offence.

Mr Iriele has this month attempted to appeal his conviction before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

“Drugs were coming through the pharmacy pursuant to written orders,” Sydney Strickland, an attorney for Mr Iriele argued before a panel of judges.

“The jury had to be specifically instructed that the pharmacist had to know the prescription was bad.

“We believe there was not sufficient evidence that [Mr Iriele] knew the prescriptions coming from the clinic were bad.”

Ms Strickland added that: “The government treated [him] as a pharmacist throughout the course of the proceedings.

“It’s only after they’ve been called out on appeal that they admit he’s not a pharmacist.”

However Assistant US Attorney Laurel Boatright said the facts were “overwhelming” that Mr Iriele and Ms Ofume had intentionally supplied more than a million highly addictive pain pills.

“The jury instructions are replete with references to knowledge and intent on behalf of the defendant, especially for all the drug counts,” said Ms Boatright.

“The jury was instructed that anyone can be charged with unlawful distribution. At that point during this conspiracy the defendant was just like everyone else without a pharmacy licence.

“He was illegally distributing, he aided and abetted the dispensing of licensed practitioners – the doctors and the other pharmacists including his wife – but he also intentionally conspired to illegally distribute.”

Ms Boatright added that at the trial, two patients testified that they remembered it was the defendant who personally filled their prescriptions.

“This was at a time when it is undisputed he was not authorised to do so, his licence had been revoked in 2007,” she said.

“Now that is significant because the defence has made much of the fact that the government supposedly is only just now on appeal resting on the defendant’s criminal liability as no longer being a licensed practitioner. Contrary to that argument, the government did argue this fact to the jury.”

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

After Mr Iriele and Ms Ofume were sentenced in 2017, they were each ordered to pay US$2.5 million (AUD$3.71 million) in community restitution to the State of Georgia to combat the opioid epidemic.

“The defendants used their pharmacy to supply pills to patients of a known ‘pill mill’ and then laundered millions of dollars to conceal their crimes,” said US Attorney Byung J Pak on their conviction.

“These pharmacists fed opiate addictions among so many as a means to sustain their lifestyles. Now, they will begin to serve lengthy prison sentences and pay back the state of Georgia to account for some of the harm they caused to the community. This money will go to help the individuals whose lives have been scarred by addiction.”

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