West Virginia Senate President Craig Blair has asked a federal judge to delay the trial involving eight former physicians and administrators in an alleged “pill mill” scheme so a longtime Senate attorney may be present at the 2022 legislative session.
Blair submitted the letter on behalf of Tom Smith, chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on June 25, and it was filed into court record Monday, the same day U.S. District Judge Frank Volk granted a motion to delay the trial involving the former HOPE Clinic until March 2022.
Smith has worked in the Senate for more than 40 years, and he is the defense attorney for one of the defendants, Mark Clarkson, in the HOPE Clinic case.
Volk moved the trial of the eight remaining defendants from Jan. 1, 2022, to March 28, 2022, missing the 2022 West Virginia legislative session.
A federal grand jury handed up an indictment in the HOPE Clinic case in February 2018, and plea deals among four of the 12 initial defendants, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to multiple delays to the trial.
By the time Blair submitted his letter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Loew already had filed his motion for Volk to reconsider the January 2022 trial date on May 12.
Loew said in his motion to reconsider the trial date that he had scheduled a personal trip more than a year ago for January 2022.
On Monday, Blair’s letter was filed as part of the court record in the case.
“I fully understand and humbly acknowledge that the trial date in this matter is completely up to you, and there are surely many factors for you to balance,” Blair wrote to Volk. “However, the West Virginia Senate and the citizens we represent would be lesser off for not having Mr. Smith available for the 2022 Regular Session.”
It is common practice for Senate staff to submit such letters in relevant circumstances for attorneys who work for the Legislature during its annual regular sessions, said Jacque Bland, communications director for the Senate.
Part of state law alleviates designated legislative employees from having to “attend to matters pending before tribunals of the executive and judicial branches of government” during a legislative session and days immediately before and following a session.
Blair didn’t cite that part of state law in his letter, but he requested that Volk grant the motion to make sure Smith is available for the 2022 session.
“Although his service to the Judiciary Committee alone is worthy of this request, his value to the Senate extends well beyond that due to his institutional wisdom and guidance to staff and members,” Blair said in the letter.
HOPE Clinic was a pain management clinic that operated in Charleston, Beckley and Beaver, West Virginia, and in Wytheville, Virginia.
The defendants are accused of operating a pill mill, prescribing oxycodone and other Schedule II controlled substances outside of their legitimate and intended medical purposes between November 2010 and June 2015.
The indictments allege the physicians prescribed thousands of pills to patients who they had reason to suspect were drug addicts.
Of the defendants who have taken plea deals in the case, one person, Teresa Emerson, was sentenced to 36 months of probation and 100 hours of community service in November 2018. She had pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting obtaining a controlled substance by fraud. Emerson served almost two years of probation before being released from federal custody, according to federal court records.
In May 2020, Volk sentenced Joshua Radcliffe, who pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to use firearms in drug trafficking, to 20 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.
The other defendants who pleaded guilty to charges — former physicians William Earley and Paul Burke — have entered their pleas, but their sentencing hearings have been delayed until August and September, respectively.