Manager of raided WVa pain clinic pleads guilty

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The former office manager of a West Virginia pain clinic told a federal judge on Tuesday that she played a reluctant role in what prosecutors allege was a conspiracy to sell narcotic prescriptions to people who did not need them in exchange for cash.

Myra Miller pleaded guilty to conspiring to misuse the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration registration number of Dr. William Ryckman, a physician at the Mountain Medical Care Center in Williamson.

Ryckman was faxed a blank prescription sheet in February 2010, which he then signed and faxed back, Miller said. Clinic staff later made copies, filled them out for people who were never evaluated by him, and faxed them to drug stores. Miller estimated the clinic sent out between 36 and 50 such sheets on that occasion, with prescriptions for one to three people on each.

Investigators raided the Mingo County clinic the following month, and it has remained closed since. Ryckman pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge as Miller in December 2011, and was sentenced to six months in prison.

But U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. accepted Miller's plea only after she repeatedly hedged when asked if she knew at the time that she was breaking the law.

Miller said that Ryckman wanted the sheet faxed because he didn't plan on being at the clinic, telling her his mother was sick. Miller said she offered instead to close the clinic that day, but that Ryckman insisted.

"He told me he would fire me if I shut the office," Miller told the judge.

Miller denied personally faxing the blank sheet to Ryckman. She also said he told her three times that pre-signing the sheet was legal. After repeated questions from Copenhaver, Miller had a whispered conversation with her lawyer, John Wooton, before she told the judge she knew she was committing a crime at the time.

Copenhaver set a June 18 sentencing hearing for Miller, who faces up to six months in prison. As part of her plea agreement, she will also forfeit her interest in the clinic building and an adjoining office as well as $475,823 in assets seized at the time of the raid. Most of that amount reflects cash found in her Kentucky residence. Her husband has also agreed to forfeit ownership of that money in a civil case stemming from the 2010 raid.

Investigators also seized assets from another physician who practiced at the clinic, Dr. Katherine Hoover, but have never charged her with a crime. Hoover has frequently locked horns with government officials over pain management practices. In the civil forfeiture cases arising from the raid, she has argued without success that federal prosecutors have no jurisdiction over the practice of medicine.

Hoover was never mentioned at Tuesday's hearing, though Miller did identify two office staffers for roles in the faxing of prescription sheets to pharmacies.

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