BIRMINGHAM – A Springville couple involved in a St. Clair County pill mill scheme entered dual guilty pleas Monday in federal court, according to a press release.
U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town, Drug Enforcement Administration-Birmingham Acting Assistant Special Agent in Charge Andy Langan and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Holloman jointly announced that Cindy Louise Hyche Dunn, 53, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances outside the usual course of professional practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose and to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering for purposes of promoting the pill mill scheme.
Her husband, Thomas Mason Dunn, 56, pleaded guilty to the same money laundering conspiracy.
The couple entered their guilty pleas before U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor. A sentencing date has not been set.
According to federal authorities, from January 2012 through December 2015, Cindy Dunn ran a pain management clinic in Moody, operating under the name Cindy Dunn & Dr. Buckingham, M.D., Weight Loss Clinic and Pain Management (CDPM).
Authorities said CDPM was not a legitimate pain clinic. It was a pill mill churning out thousands of prescriptions for opioid painkillers.
Thomas Dunn performed financial transactions on behalf of CDPM to further the pill mill scheme. He also received prescriptions for opioid painkillers from CDPM.
“This couple operated a pain management clinic with reckless disregard for patient safety,” Town said, in the release. “To those who continue to poison our communities by this illegal practice and enable the growth of the opioid crisis in our state, you will be caught, you will be prosecuted and you will have a bed in federal prison.”
Langan said this was another example of the great teamwork between federal, state and local law enforcement partners to positively impact the lives of the good people living in our communities.
“This investigation demonstrates the fact that if you are a doctor in the state of Alabama and you are illegally prescribing controlled substances, we will find you and you will pay a heavy price,” he said, in the release.
As part of their plea agreements, the couple will forfeit their Springville home to the United States. The agreement with Cindy Dunn stipulates a 10-year prison sentence. The agreement with Thomas Dunn stipulates a 30-month prison sentence.
“Pill mills continue to plague our communities as the illegal distribution of prescription drugs remains a profitable criminal enterprise,” Holloman said, in the release. “IRS-CI pledges to follow the money to the profiteers and work with our partners to shut down these illegal operations. Today’s guilty pleas are a step forward in law enforcement’s efforts to address the prescription drug problem in our community”.
Proctor accepted the couples’ guilty pleas Monday but reserved decision on whether to accept the stipulated prison sentences until the couples’ sentencing hearings.
The plea agreements entered by Cindy Dunn and Thomas Dunn with the United States are non-binding, meaning any party may withdraw if the court does not accept the stipulated prison sentences.
According to her plea agreement, as the owner and president of CDPM, Cindy Dunn ran its day-to-day operations and hired and directed physicians and staff.
Two doctors issued the majority of CDPM’s controlled substance prescriptions, and neither were pain management specialists. John Ladd Buckingham was CDPM’s primary physician. He was indicted in connection with his alleged involvement in September 2018.
The other doctor, Steven Bruce Hefter, who issued prescriptions for CDPM at various times, pleaded guilty for his involvement with CDPM in December 2017.
CDPM attracted patients from all over Alabama and outside the state. Patients came from Huntsville, Muscle Shoals, Florence and Mobile. Patients also flocked to CDPM from Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. CDPM received anywhere from 40 to 80 patients in a single day.
CDPM typically did not treat patients with anything other than high doses of opioid painkillers, according to Cindy Dunn’s plea agreement.
Prescribed opioids included fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine, oxycodone and oxymorphone.
CDPM rarely, if ever, ordered diagnostic tests, such as X-rays or MRIs to identify and potentially treat the source(s) of pain.
Patients often received opioid prescriptions or dosage increases upon request. CDPM also issued prescriptions for a combination of drugs known as “the holy trinity,” which consists of an opioid painkiller, a muscle relaxer and a benzodiazepine. The plea agreement states this “cocktail” has a high potential for abuse and carries a significant risk of overdose.
According to her plea agreement, Cindy Dunn had no formal medical education, qualifications or licensing, yet she directed, oversaw and guided prescriptions for opioids and other controlled substances at CDPM.
For example, Cindy Dunn allowed patients to continue receiving opioid prescriptions after failing multiple drug tests. She also permitted patients who admitted buying pills on the street and/or who had a history of drug abuse to receive opioid prescriptions.
It further states that Cindy Dunn devised a system for pre-signing prescriptions in order to maximize revenue. CDPM staff wrote prescriptions, which the doctors signed far in advance of patient visits.
The pre-signed prescriptions were then handed to patients in exchange for cash without the doctor seeing the patient. Cindy Dunn, Thomas Dunn and others used the money generated through CDPM’s pill mill scheme to continue CDPM’s operations, according to both plea agreements.
“The Dunn’s had no business running a pain management clinic,” said Assistant United States Attorney Mohammad Khatib, in the release. “They harnessed the prescribing power of their physician co-conspirators for the sole purpose of making fast money. Their greed spread the opioid epidemic in Alabama and inflicted real damage on the legitimate medical community. For that, they must pay a very dear price.”
DEA and IRS-Criminal Investigation investigated the case, which Assistant U.S. Attorneys Khatib and Robin Beardsley Mark are prosecuting.