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U.S. federal judge sentences Florida pill mill doctors

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday sentenced a South Florida doctor to more than six years in prison on a money-laundering conviction related to prescriptions she wrote for thousands of painkillers to addicts and drug dealers.

A jury in July 2013 acquitted Dr. Cynthia Cadet, 43, a retired U.S. Air Force major, and Joseph Castronuovo, 74, on charges that their roles in a chain of South Florida pain clinics led to the deaths of nine patients. Each faced life in prison and fines of up to $2 million apiece.

Defense lawyers argued both doctors were unaware of the conspiracy and were practicing medicine in line with state prescribed standards, which allow licensed physicians to distribute opioid pain pills without fear of punishment.

But the jury convicted the two of money laundering for their role in the "pill mill" conspiracy.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra sentenced Cadet to 78 months in prison, while Castronuovo received 18 months. Both were also ordered to pay $10,000 in fines.

Cadet's lawyer, Michael D. Weinstein, said he plans to appeal the conviction.

The two doctors' trial capped a four-year operation targeting a string of South Florida pain clinics that resulted in racketeering charges against 32 people in 2010.

The clinics owner, Christopher George, is serving more than 17 years in prison and his brother and co-owner Jeffrey George is serving more than 15. Both testified on the government's behalf.

Florida once had 90 of the top 100 oxycodone-purchasing physicians in the nation and 53 of the top 100 oxycodone-purchasing pharmacies.

Many of those pills made their way up the East Coast, sold at high markups in rural communities stretching from northern Alabama to western Pennsylvania. Interstate 95 was dubbed Oxy Alley for the dealers who regularly drove hundreds of miles to South Florida to buy cheap pain pills.

Florida claims to have made enormous strides in recent years against a nationwide epidemic of prescription drug abuse, though the crackdown on painkillers has led to more heroin abuse.

Deaths from heroin, now more potent and widely available than ever, rose 89 percent in Florida, from 62 in 2011 to 117 in 2012, with the problem reaching epidemic proportions in South Florida, according to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institute of Health.

(Editing by David Adams and David Gregorio)

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