Indictments handed down for area doctors
Three doctors accused of dealing drugs out of Union General Hospital more than two years ago were indicted in federal court last week.
John Michael Gowder, George David Gowder III and James Lanier Heaton were indicted as part of Operation SCOPE on federal charges for “illegally prescribing and obtaining thousands of doses of prescription pain medications outside the usual course of professional medical practice and for no legitimate medical purpose,” according to a release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“These defendants allegedly abused their positions as medical professionals to obtain illegitimately thousands of doses of prescription pain medications and now face serious federal charges,” U.S. Attorney Byung J. Pak said. “The Department of Justice is committed to fighting the opioid epidemic through the aggressive investigation and prosecution of licensed medical practitioners who abuse their positions of trust to engage in illegal conduct.”
The charges came from an eight-month investigation into the distribution of large amounts of prescription drugs to patients – and even non-patients – who were not diagnosed with a need for them. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration got involved in the investigation along with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and Union County officials.
“The investigation showed a lot of red flags showing up with some of the prescriptions that were being sent from Union County and filled here,” Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer said in 2016, after the men were initially arrested in his county. “There were prescriptions to people that didn’t exist, and there were prescriptions to people who were not patients and who were not being seen by the doctor.”
The prescriptions were mostly for oxycodone, the Union County Sheriff’s Office said in 2016, adding that “thousands of pills” were found after a search of Heaton’s office.
Michael Gowder was chief executive officer of the Blairsville hospital at the time of his arrest. Heaton operated a family practice in Blairsville that served also many Cherokee County residents.
At the time of the initial arrests, Palmer said the DEA investigation uncovered some unusually large prescription orders that were in too great a quantity to be for just one person. In many cases, the person in question never existed.
The U.S. Attorney’s release said Michael and David Gowder allegedly conspired together to illegally obtain oxycodone, hydrocodone and alprazolam.
“Americans rely on health-care providers, many of whom are medical doctors, to use their training to help patients and to ‘do no harm.’ The physicians and the hospital CEO in this case violated the law and betrayed their responsibilities by unlawfully obtaining and dispensing prescription opioids,” said Robert J. Murphy, special agent in charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division.
“The moment these individuals decided to engage in this criminal behavior, they became nothing more than traditional drug traffickers. DEA, its law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are committed to stemming the tide against the current opioid epidemic.”
David Gowder allegedly directed Union General employees to fill the prescriptions at local pharmacies, according to the release, which also alleges that Michael Gowder used his position as chief administrator to fire hospital employees who tried to expose the illegal operation. Court documents also claim he allegedly used his position to intimidate other employees into concealing David Gowder’s unlawful acquisition of controlled substances.
Heaton allegedly prescribed oxycodone and other controlled substances to Michael Gowder, family members and others, despite knowing the prescriptions were issued “outside the usual course of professional practice and that the pills obtained with the prescriptions had no legitimate medical purpose,” the release says.
In addition to filling the prescriptions at pharmacies in Georgia, Michael Gowder often traveled to North Carolina and Tennessee to fill multiple prescriptions a month at pharmacies in those states.
Michael Gowder still has multiple felony trafficking counts pending in Cherokee County Superior Court. Assistant district attorney John Hindsman said it was not immediately clear how Michael’s charges pending in North Carolina would play out in the process. His next scheduled administrative court date is Monday, April 16.
Three women were arrested in 2016 as allegedly being part of the conspiracy, but two of them no longer have charges pending. Jamie Harkins has no charges in North Carolina, but does face two counts of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance in Union County as well as two violations of the controlled substance act.
This case is being investigated by the DEA as well as members of the Union County Sheriff’s Office, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, Georgia Drugs & Narcotics Agency and Zell Miller Mountain Parkway Drug Task Force.