Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Justin, for that kind introduction. Thank you for your eight years of service to the Department of Justice, as well as your service in the Air Force, the Navy Reserve, and as an Assistant D.A. in Manhattan.
It is an honor to be here with my fellow prosecutors and law enforcement officers to make some announcements about one of the most important issues we face: our fight against the opioid epidemic.
But first, I want to thank the outstanding leadership team standing behind me today:
- Jesse Panuccio, our acting Associate Attorney General,
- Brian Benczkowski, our newly-confirmed head of the Criminal Division, and
- Chad Readler, the acting head of our Civil Division. Chad is a proud Ohioan, formerly a partner at Jones Day in Columbus, and has served all three branches of the Ohio government in an appointed capacity. It has been an honor to have him as part of our team.
I especially want to thank all of the federal officers who are here with us today, who do so much to fight opioid trafficking in Ohio, across state lines, and even international lines. That includes:
- Timothy Plancon of DEA,
- Steve Francis of HSI, and
- First Assistant U.S. Attorney David Sierleja. David, happy retirement after 30 years of service to the Department of Justice.
And while we are inexpressibly proud of our fabulous federal officers, we also understand and appreciate the fact that 85 percent of the law enforcement officers in this country serve at the state and local levels. And so I want to thank all of our state and local officers who are here today. You are the ones in the trenches every day gathering the street-level intelligence that can lead to national and even international cases.
And we are sadly well aware that Ohio at is the center of the drug epidemic. In 2016, Ohio was second in the nation in overdose death rates, with a rate nearly double the national average.
Our goals at the Department are to reduce crime, reduce homicides, reduce prescriptions, and reduce overdose deaths. To achieve them, we are working to drive up the cost of drugs and bring down their supply, purity, and availability.
As one part of his plan President Trump has set the ambitious goal of reducing opioid prescriptions by one third in three years. According to the National Prescription Audit, over the past year we reduced prescriptions by 11 percent. That’s in addition to a 7 percent decline in 2017.
And while 2017 saw a continuing rise in overdose deaths from 2016, the most recent data show a possible leveling off of overdose deaths. We have a lot of work left to do, we are beginning to see progress. And we are continuing to step up our aggressive efforts.
Over the past year, I have sent 10 more prosecutors to Ohio. One is dedicated exclusively on prescription drug fraud. Two focus on fighting the trafficking of synthetic drugs. More prosecutors will mean more cases, more convictions, and ultimately safer communities.
Before I say anything else, I want to remind everyone that the defendants in these cases—as in every case—are innocent until proven guilty. The allegations that I will present today are just that: allegations.
Today, I am here with a series of dramatic announcements that reveal the determination of this administration and this Department of Justice to take strong action to combat the grip of death and destruction that has taken hold of our country and in particular this office’s aggressive leadership here in Ohio that is set to turn the tide on this plague.
Six months ago, I announced the Department’s Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force, which coordinates our criminal and civil actions to fight the opioid crisis at every level of the supply chain—from manufacturers to distributors to doctors to pharmacies to street dealers and gangs.
President Trump has directed me to take civil action against drug companies when it is warranted by law—and I will do so. I will also bring criminal charges where appropriate.
Today, thanks to the PIL Task Force, I am announcing the first ever civil injunctions under the Controlled Substances Act against doctors who evidence indicates prescribed opioids illegally.
These injunctions – a temporary restraining order – will stop immediately these doctors from prescribing—without waiting for a criminal prosecution.
Both doctors in these cases are from Northern Ohio.
Dr. Michael Tricaso works in Akron and Painesville and is accused of selling thousands of dollars’ worth of narcotics without a legitimate medical purpose. He allegedly sold them to an undercover DEA agent in a hotel parking lot over a series of three months. These pills include Percocet. Dr. Tricaso also allegedly wrote prescriptions for an undercover DEA agent and two DEA sources for steroids and Percocet without legitimate medical purpose.
The second doctor is Dr. Gregory Gerber of Sandusky—who the complaint alleges prescribed countless opioids without a legitimate medical purpose and who caused the submission of false claims to Medicare Part D, the prescription drug section.
The complaint for the injunction charges that he prescribed oxycodone to an undercover agent who never said that she was in pain. According to the allegations, Dr. Gerber allegedly ordered no tests and performed only a minimal physical examination. This happened on seven different occasions over seven months. Eventually he doubled the dosage and the strength of the pills.
The charges also allege that this doctor accepted $175,000 in kickbacks from a company that makes a fentanyl drug intended for cancer patients, a drug he prescribed to patients who did not have cancer.
We seek to deny these doctors the authority to continue prescribing drugs. In the lawsuit, we seek up to $700,000 in damages from Dr. Tricaso. Our initial estimates of Dr. Gerber’s alleged false claims to Medicare total 2.8 million taxpayer dollars. We will seek at least triple the total in damages.
My second announcement today is an important case involving Chinese fentanyl trafficking.
Today I am announcing a 43-count indictment by the Northern District of Ohio team of the leaders of the Zheng drug trafficking organization. The indictment charges a man known by the alias of Gordon Jin and his father.
These traffickers allegedly manufactured—in China—more than 250 types of synthetic drugs, including synthetic opioids and deadly fentanyl analogues that they distributed in the United States and around the world.
Using an elaborate system of shell companies, the Zheng organization allegedly shipped synthetic opioids to locations in more than 25 countries and 37 U.S. states, including Ohio.
The man who is charged with serving as the American reshipper for Zheng has already been arrested. He was caught with while trying to flee the country and has pled guilty.
Last April, a career drug dealer from Akron and his girlfriend were sentenced to a total of 30 years in prison for selling fentanyl that took the life of Thomas Rauh of Akron.
Shortly after his arrest, Ohio officers contacted the suppliers he had used online and then purchased fentanyl analogues from them. That led us straight to the Zheng organization. We now believe that the drugs that killed Thomas Rauh and 23-year old Carrie Dobbins originated with the Zheng organization.
We also allege that the Zheng organization manufactured counterfeit drugs that purported to be Adderall and discussed manufacturing various trademarked cancer drugs, but were fake. They were actually bath salts. Adulteration of medicine with synthetic drugs would of course be illegal in both the United States and China.
As we fight this scourge, our law enforcement agencies will count on the cooperation of China’s Ministry of Public Security, and we will look to the Government of China to schedule fentanyl-related substances as a class, as the US has done.
My third announcement arises from Operation Darkness Falls, a joint operation against dark net fentanyl traffickers by the FBI, the IRS, our Postal Inspectors, and Homeland Security Investigators again right here in Northern Ohio.
Today I am announcing that this office has charged a husband and wife—who at the time of their arrest were the most prolific dark net fentanyl vendor in the United States and the fourth most prolific on Earth. They were known online as MH4Life.
Last July, the Department of Justice seized Alpha Bay, which was the largest dark net marketplace in history.
This site hosted some 220,000 drug listings and was responsible for countless synthetic opioid overdoses, including the tragic death of a 13 year old.
MH4Life allegedly used Alpha Bay and at least eight other darknet sites to sell opioids and other deadly drugs. On one of their profiles, they advertised more than 3,000 completed drug sales.
Undercover agents made controlled purchases from MH4Life on the darknet. Through coordinated efforts with our Postal Inspectors, the packages they received were traced to a post office in San Antonio and the woman mailing them was identified.
She and her husband were observed carrying large bags of envelopes that matched the ones used to send drugs to undercover agents.
Surveillance followed the woman as she attempted to purchase hundreds of dollars of gift credit cards with cash, a tactic commonly used by money launderers.
Federal agents executed simultaneous search warrants on the hotel room and the residence the next day. They observed M holding suspected heroin, many pages of drug ledgers in both of the defendants’ handwriting, encrypted electronic devices, and passwords used for third-party payment websites.
Agents found drugs packaged for distribution, large quantities of cash, counterfeit currency, a gun, and cryptocurrency hard wallets.
Since then, no one has logged on to the MH4Life accounts and no shipments have been sent.
Operation Darkness Falls has also led us to indict at least five others.
That includes a man who allegedly was the third-largest dark net fentanyl vendor in North America at the time of his arrest—a man known online as DF44. He was arrested with the help of our allies in Canada.
A search warrant led to a fentanyl stash room that was right next to his daughter’s playroom. After his arrest, the defendant posted bond and then committed suicide.
We have also indicted a major Xanax dealer known online as The Source, or BonnieNClyde. When he was arrested, we seized more than $438,000 in bitcoin.
Fourthly, the Northern District of Ohio team has obtained indictments of a dark net fentanyl dealer who ran his business in an apartment that was just down the street from Our Lady of the Lake Catholic school in Euclid. Two weeks ago, he pled guilty and is due to be sentenced this fall.
Lastly, a grand jury here indicted two other dark net fentanyl vendors, one of whom recently pled guilty and is expected to receive a 10-year sentence.
I want to remind the public once again that the defendants in all of these cases are innocent until proven guilty. My statements are allegations.
But let’s make one thing clear: Today’s announcements are a warning to every trafficker, every crooked doctor or pharmacist, and every drug company, every chairman and foreign national and company that puts greed before the lives and health of the American people: this Justice Department will use civil and criminal penalties alike and we will find you, put you in jail, or make you pay.
Justin, you and your team are doing outstanding work for the people of Ohio and indeed this nation. Drug trafficking is an international business. The effects of these cases will be felt from coast to coast and around the world.
And so I want to close where I began: by thanking the outstanding law officers who played a role in each one of these actions that I have announced today. Officers at the federal, state, and local levels in Ohio and across the country made these indictments possible. These cases may have saved lives already. These officers have shown us once again that no nation on Earth has a finer group of law officers than we have here in the United States.
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Author: August 22, 2018