A federal judge on Friday dismissed the federal charges against a Merrick physician accused of illegally distributing opioid pain medication to patients.
Dr. Michael Belfiore was alleged to have written thousands of opioid prescriptions for his own profit, some to patients who died of overdoses, and his attorney is defending Belfiore by blaming any wrongdoing on deceptive marketing by drug manufacturers and lax federal regulations.
According to Belfiore’s attorney, Thomas Liotti, federal prosecutors failed to include language in their indictment indicating specifically that Belfiore prescribed medication “without a legitimate medical purpose.”
“My guy can only be charged … if he prescribed without a legitimate medical purpose,” Liotti recently told the Herald. “[The prosecution] have a burden to show that as an element to the grand jury.”
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bianco agreed with Liotti, at a recent hearing, that there is “some case law” that suggests that if the “legitimate medical purpose” element is a part of the statute Belfiore allegedly violated, then it also has to be contained in the indictment.
The charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning that federal prosecutors may re-present the charges to a new grand jury — which Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Gatz, who is prosecuting the case, said was a certainty.
However, Liotti said on Friday that Bianco’s decision was “a major breakthrough, which signals the weaknesses in the government’s case.”
“We’ve got all kinds of objections to that because they aren’t letting [Belfiore] go back in and testify [before the new grad jury],” Liotti added. “They’re just using the minutes and I’ve objected to that, for a variety of legal reasons.”
When reached for comment on Friday, Gatz said that she remained confident in the government’s case against Belfiore.
“It’s a procedural dismissal,” she said. “It was not dismissed on the merits, so we will be re-presenting to the grand jury next week.”
Belfiore is also entangled in two related civil cases in the State Supreme Court, having been named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Nassau County this week against numerous opioid manufacturers, as well as moving to intervene as a plaintiff in a similar suit filed by Suffolk County.
Attorneys for Suffolk County and Purdue Pharma have filed papers opposing Belfiore’s motion, stating that he has no material claim in the action, and that his involvement would further complicate the matter.
Salvatore Badala, of Napoli Skolnik, the law firm representing Nassau County, said on Monday that by naming Belfiore in the Nassau suit, the county is making it clear that “doctors are part of the problem as well.”
“He was pushing this stuff on his patients,” he said.
Liotti said that he has additional Fifth Amendment-related issues he will bring to the judge’s attention when prosecutors attempt to re-indict Belfiore, and that “the government and ‘Big Pharma’ created this opioid crisis — not my client.”