Merrick physician Michael Belfiore, who was convicted last May of illegally prescribing opioids and causing the overdose deaths of two South Shore men, recently asked a federal judge to overturn his conviction.
According to Belfiore, Garden City attorney Tom Liotti did not give him a proper defense. Belfiore’s new attorney, Bruce Barket, alleged that Liotti had advised Belfiore against taking a plea when it clearly would have been in his best interest to do so, and billed Belfiore for hours Liotti spent on the phone consulting with a psychic during the trial.
Federal prosecutors last week, however, said that Belfiore’s media campaign proclaiming his innocence — aside from TV appearances, he spoke on the record extensively with the Herald — did not support the idea that he initially wanted to plead guilty. Also, they said that given the overwhelming evidence against him, Liotti actually gave him a reasonable defense.
Belfiore was warned extensively, prosecutors wrote, about the risks of going to trial rather than accepting their plea offers. At first, he had the chance to plead guilty to one charge of prescribing opioids improperly and to serve 30 to 37 months in prison (see box).
However, Belfiore declined twice to plead guilty.
Even though he “may have avoided jail time or been given a reduced sentence,” Liotti wrote in a sworn affidavit, “his practice and professional life would, for all intents and purposes, end, due to his plea to a felony.”
“His medical practice was his life, which may as well be over,” if he took the plea, Liotti said.
Prosecutors also said that Belfiore’s claims about Liotti’s phone conversations with a psychic were irrelevant, because no trial strategy changed as a result of the conversations. “The themes of entrapment, the defendant’s reliance on [pharmaceutical industry promotional materials], his good faith, the failure of state prescription monitoring databases and lack of patient responsibility,” prosecutors said, “were all longstanding themes of the defense long before [Liotti] ever spoke to the psychic.”
Despite the fact that Barket alleged that Liotti made a mistake in casting blame on the pharmaceutical industry for misleading doctors about the safety of opioids, prosecutors said that Liotti’s tactic was “reasonable.”
Barket called the strategy “internally inconsistent, and devastatingly used by the prosecution to wholly discredit Dr. Belfiore’s credibility.”
Prosecutors, however, said that it was a “strategic choice that was sensible in light of the overwhelming evidence” against Belfiore. Essentially, it was not Liotti’s fault that the jurors did not accept the argument.
Reached for comment this week, Liotti said that he thinks Belfiore is “in some trouble,” based on the government’s filings, and thinks Belfiore should have stuck with one of his prepared motions to have the verdict overturned based on the government’s failure to make its case.
He also dismissed the idea that Belfiore’s media blitz proclaiming his innocence hurt his defense.
“There was legitimate medical purpose — that was his whole defense,” he said. “The experts we proffered showed that, and the verdict was contrary to the proof, and that’s the approach that I think should be taken.”
Barket has until Feb. 1 to respond to the government’s filing. Oral arguments are scheduled for Feb. 27. Belfiore remains in federal custody.
He was convicted of causing the deaths of John Ubaghs, of Baldwin, and of Edward Martin, of East Rockaway, both in 2013.
A third patient, from Glen Cove, also died of a fentanyl overdose in 2009, days after Belfiore prescribed him the potent, often lethal opioid. The man’s widow, Claudia Marra, told the Herald last year that her husband was addicted to opioids, and Belfiore knew it. She did not press charges against Belfiore, but told her story in a series of Herald reports in summer 2017; her husband’s medical records were also subpoenaed by prosecutors pre-trial.
A fourth patient of Belfiore’s also died of an overdose in 2011. His family filed a wrongful death suit against Belfiore, and won a financial settlement in 2017.