A federal judge on June 16 dismissed the criminal charges against the 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. His attorney, Thomas Liotti, blamed any wrongdoing on Belfiore’s part on deceptive marketing by drug manufacturers and lax federal regulations.
According to Liotti, federal prosecutors failed to include language in their indictment saying 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. “[Prosecutors] have a burden to show that as an element to the grand jury.”
At a recent hearing, U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco agreed with Liotti that there is “some case law” that suggests that if the “legitimate medical purpose” element is 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 prosecuted the case, said was a certainty.
However, Liotti said last 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,” Liotti said of the possibility of another indictment, “because they aren’t letting [Belfiore] go back in and testify [before the new grand jury]. They’re just using the minutes, and I’ve objected to that for a variety of legal reasons.”
Reached for comment on June 16, Gatz said 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.”
The widow of one of Belfiore’s former patients, who died of an opioid overdose in 2009, according to medical records, said on Tuesday that Belfiore’s defense was “ridiculous,” and that she hoped he would be re-indicted sooner rather than later.
“He obviously knows what he did was wrong,” said Claudia Marra, of Glen Cove. “He was well aware … everybody these days knows how addictive oxycodone is. A 13-year-old could Google it.”
Belfiore is also entangled in two related civil cases in New York State Supreme Court, having been named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Nassau County last week against numerous opioid manufacturers, and attempting to intervene as a plaintiff in a similar suit filed by Suffolk County.
Attorneys for Suffolk County and the opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma have filed papers opposing Belfiore’s involvement, stating that he has no material claim in the action.
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,” Badala said.
Liotti said that he has additional Fifth Amendment-related issues that he will bring to the judge’s attention if prosecutors attempt to re-indict Belfiore, and that “the government and ‘Big Pharma’ created this opioid crisis — not my client.”