When federal agents raided the Pittsburgh-area office of Dr. Bernard L. Rottschaefer, the resulting allegations came as a shock to the 63-year-old man's friends and family: Rottschaefer, the office of U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan alleged, had been writing prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication and opiate painkillers like OxyContin in exchange for sex.
Rottschaefer's arrest came at the height of a nationwide moral panic over prescription painkiller abuse. His 2004 trial came just after the Orlando Sentinel newspaper had published a landmark series on abuse of the painkiller OxyContin, a series that inspired Congressional hearings and legislation across the country-and a series the newspaper later had to retract in its entirety, and for which the paper eventually fired an editor and reporter.
Buchanan (who now heads up a domestic violence program within the Department of Justice) was politically savvy, ambitious, and had taken on a number of high-profile cases that made her a rising star in the Bush administration, including spending $12 million to nab 55 people on low-level charges of selling glass-blown bongs over the Internet (including pot celebrity Tommy Chong).
Buchanan also brought the first federal obscenity case in 15 years.
As the Drug Enforcement Administration initiated a high-profile anti-opiate campaign in the early 2000s, it began raiding the offices of pain doctors all over the country. DEA officials and prosecutors held press conferences boasting of the doctors they'd nabbed. Many of these prosecutions were dubious. The government was mistaking a promising new form of pain treatment, sometimes called high-dose opiate therapy, for what it called white-collar drug dealing.
What's more, the government insisted (and still insists) it needed to show no motive and no criminal intent to convict these doctors of drug dealing. It only needs to show that a given doctor's prescriptions are outside the course of normal medical practice-a standard to be determined by government drug cops, not medical boards. Given her history of embracing high-profile, high-publicity cases, it's of little surprise that Buchanan would find a doctor in her own district to help her tap the ongoing painkiller hysteria.
Rottschaefer was eventually convicted on 153 of 208 counts of illegally prescribing prescription painkillers. Five women testified that Rottschaefer wrote them prescriptions for which prosecutors say there was "no legitimate medical purpose."
Buchanan also played up the salacious sex allegations in public, and her subordinates played them up in the courtroom. From a perception standpoint, the sex allegations were important, because Dr. Rottschaefer clearly wasn't prescribing these pills to get rich-he was getting approximately $6 per month for three of the patients, and approximately $22 per month for the others. All were on government assistance.
Government witness Dr. Douglas Clough confidently told jurors that there was nothing in the five women's medical histories that would have called for the drugs Dr. Rottschaefer prescribed. Rottschaefer was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison, later reduced to five.
Even before the jury returned its verdict, there were problems with the government's case. Start with Dr. Clough, who despite government assertions to the contrary is no expert on pain treatment. When questioned on the witness stand, Clough was unaware of some basic legal guidelines any doctor who regularly prescribes pain medication should have known.
For example, he was ignorant of the fact that at the time, it was illegal for a doctor to post-date a prescription for opioid painkillers. Clough also didn't review all of the five witnesses' histories, only those portions of them provided by the government. He didn't speak to or examine any of the women. For this, the government then paid him approximately $11,000.
Four of the five women who testified against Dr. Rottschaefer alleged a sex-for-drugs arrangement. But all four initially denied any sex took place. They changed their stories after conversations with federal prosecutors. It so happens that all four were also facing their own criminal charges at the time, and it's now clear that all four received reductions in their own charges or sentences in exchange for their testimony.
Not only was the jury not told about these arrangements, it was explicitly told precisely the opposite-that there were no testimony-for-leniency deals.
In 2005, as Dr. Rottschaefer was appealing his conviction, the government's case took yet another blow. The ex-boyfriend of Jennifer Riggle, the government's star witness, gave Rottschaefer's lawyers 183 letters Riggle sent to him while he was in prison. In them, Riggle admits over and over again that she fabricated the sex-for-drugs stories about Dr. Rottschaefer and lied about them in court.
"I think they want to subpened (sic) me to a grand jury about the doctor I was seeing," Riggle wrote in one letter. "They're saying he was bribing patients with sex for pills, but that never happened to me. DEA said they will cut me a deal for good testimony."