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Doctor indicted in 6 drug fatalities

Prescriptions said to lead to overdoses; nurse practitioner also faces charges

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By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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A former Needham doctor and his nurse practitioner caused the overdose deaths of at least six people they knew to be drug-addicted by systematically prescribing them medically unnecessary painkillers in order to make a profit, according to charges handed up yesterday in federal court in Boston.

Dr. Joseph P. Zolot, a specialist in nonsurgical orthopedics, and nurse practitioner Lisa M. Pliner were indicted on charges of conspiring to illegally distribute controlled substances — including methadone, oxycodone, and fentanyl — and six counts each of distribution of controlled substances resulting in deaths. If convicted, they each face a mandatory sentence of 20 years to life in prison.

Law enforcement officials said it is one of the most significant cases of medical misconduct to reach a criminal court anywhere in the country.

“The conduct alleged in today’s indictment is incomprehensible,’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said. “I hope it sends a strong message that the government will aggressively prosecute any medical professional who facilitates the distribution of dangerous and addictive drugs purely for financial gain.’’

The indictment alleges that Zolot and Pliner knew their patients were addicted to drugs, including street drugs such as cocaine, but prescribed medically unnecessary painkillers in exchange for cash or payments from insurance companies. Authorities say patients then overdosed on those drugs, causing their own deaths.

Investigators at one point were looking at the deaths of more than 20 of the pair’s patients and the nonfatal overdoses of dozens of others.

Zolot, 61, who has been staying in Florida recently, and Pliner, 51, of Bedford, turned themselves in to FBI agents yesterday and made an initial appearance before US Magistrate Judge Judith Dein. They were ordered held until a hearing at 2 p.m. today to determine whether they should be released on bail.

Zolot had surrendered his medical license not long after the investigation started in 2007. Pliner surrendered her nurse practitioner license, which allowed her to give out prescriptions, in 2008 but is still a licensed nurse. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health said yesterday that the Board of Nursing will consider any new information.

David E. Meier, a lawyer for Zolot, said yesterday that his client was a well-respected doctor who has treated thousands of patients and has lived in the Boston area with his wife and children for more than 20 years.

He said that his client has known of the investigation for four years and that he will contest the charges.

“The deaths alleged by the government in [the] indictments are horrible tragedies; so too is the fact the government has chosen to charge Dr. Zolot with criminal conduct for the manner in which he practiced medicine and treated patients,’’ Meier said. “His intent was to do good as a doctor. It was never his intent to cause harm, never mind death, to any patient.’’

Laura B. Angelini, Pliner’s attorney, said her client was a licensed registered nurse with an impeccable record of service to her patients.

“She anxiously looks forward to vindicating herself in front of a jury,’’ Angelini said.

Pliner’s husband and Zolot’s wife were in the courtroom yesterday but did not comment.

The prescription of painkillers for certain medical conditions is allowed even if the patient is a known addict — but only if the patient and the potential for abuse are monitored, according to standard medical procedures.

In this case, prosecutors said, the duo handed out an extraordinary number of prescriptions in blatant disregard for their patients’ safety, all for a profit.

“A license to practice is not a license to deal, and that is precisely what is alleged in this indictment,’’ said Steve Derr, special agent in charge of the Boston office of the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

Authorities speculate that patients either abused the drugs or sold them to other addicts, according to court records.

The alleged victims include Dennis Dillon, 36, who died Feb. 22, 2004, three days after he was prescribed methadone for the first time. Family members had already raised concerns to Zolot about Dillon’s drug addiction, according to court records, and Dillon’s insurance company wrote a letter to Zolot, questioning his prescription practices. Zolot did not respond to the letter, according to court records.

Jeffrey Campbell, 26, died March 25, 2005, one day after receiving his first methadone prescription despite a history of apparent abuse of prescribed painkillers, according to court records.

Thomas Dunphy, 49, died Aug. 9, 2005, three years after he started receiving a prescription for oxycodone and fentanyl in exchange for cash payments. Court records state that Dunphy had tested positive for using methadone without a prescription in the weeks before he died, and that he died the day after Zolot officially prescribed it for him.

James Curley, 44, also tested positive for methadone, although the drug was not prescribed, meaning he was taking it illegally. It eventually was prescribed in September 2005 despite Curley’s history of drug addiction, according to court records. He died Oct. 14, 2005.

Christopher Bartoloni, 35, died Jan. 14, 2006, four years after he started receiving prescriptions for methadone and oxycodone. In the months before his death, Bartoloni allegedly received prescriptions for Percocet and OxyContin, even though he had tested positive for other drugs, according to court records.

Scot Poulack, 39, died Sept. 8, 2006, a month after being prescribed methadone for the first time. Test results showed he was already using methadone, however. He also tested positive for cocaine. Three days before his death, Poulack was prescribed methadone and oxycodone. He died of a methadone overdose, court records show.

Several of the victims’ family members said yesterday that they could not comment because of an ongoing lawsuit against the doctor. One family member, who declined to be identified, said, “My brother was not a junkie until he saw that doctor.’’

David Frank of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a former state prosecutor, said yesterday that the case is extraordinary in that prosecutors are charging that Zolot and Pline directly contributed to their patients’ deaths.

“The federal government is really alleging some brazen conduct,’’ Frank said. “Federal prosecutors aren’t alleging the doctor and nurse engaged in gross negligence or even reckless conduct. It appears to be an allegation where they’re saying the defendants knowingly engaged in conduct that brought about this kind of danger.’’

It is not known how much Zolot and Pliner made from the practice, though court records say they would see 40 to 50 patients a day, four days a week, and would charge $300 for an initial visit. Another $100 to $150 would be charged for a follow-up visit, court the court records say.

The investigation was launched about five years ago by Boston and Needham police and involves records dating to 2003. A task force made up of agents from several federal agencies was formed, and together with local police the force raided Zolot’s Needham office in 2007.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com