A doctor who prescribed more than 2,500 pain pills to Medford pharmacy gunman David Laffer has been arrested on charges of illegally prescribing narcotics to a Queens man who died of an overdose and is being investigated in nine other overdose deaths in the past three years.
Dr. Stan Xuhui Li, an anesthesiologist at a New Jersey hospital who operates a pain clinic in Flushing, pleaded not guilty Monday in Manhattan Supreme Court to 15 counts of criminal sale of a prescription for a controlled substance and five counts of reckless endangerment. Li, 57, was arrested at his Flushing clinic Saturday morning, authorities said.
Just the 'tip of the iceberg'
Li's arrest followed a yearlong investigation by the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York. The charges stem from his treatment of a Queens man, Michael Cornetta. Li prescribed oxycodone and other drugs to Cornetta dozens of times between May 2009 and August 2010, sometimes giving him two different strengths of the same medication at once, according to a statement by the prosecutor's office.
Cornetta, 40, overdosed during this period and sought substance abuse treatment, yet Li continued to prescribe to him after being informed that he'd been hospitalized, prosecutors said. Cornetta died from a multiple drug overdose last November, they said.
Prosecutors said the Cornetta case is "the tip of the iceberg" and that they were investigating Li's prescriptions to others, including nine people who have overdosed and died since January 2009. Kati Cornell, spokeswoman for the narcotics prosecutor, said some of those deaths involved residents of Long Island, where prescription pill abuse has soared in recent years. Cornell declined to name the dead, citing the investigation.
Bridget G. Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor, said the prescription drug epidemic "is the first crisis of addiction that has originated with the medical profession. Many doctors have unwittingly fostered dependence and addiction by prescribing opiate drugs. Dr. Li is charged with conduct of a completely different nature. He is accused of intentionally writing prescriptions for addictive narcotics in return for cash and for no legitimate medical reason. The conduct charged is just another form of drug dealing."
Li's bail was set at $500,000 bond or $100,000 cash. Li's attorney, Aaron Wallenstein, said he expected his client, who is paid more than $400,000 a year for his services at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton, N.J., to be free soon. He said Li would fight the charges.
"He maintains he has done nothing wrong and has practiced along established procedures," Wallenstein said.
In a statement Monday night, a hospital spokesman said Li works there on a contract basis and officials are "taking action in concert with its Medical Staff to immediately suspend Dr. Li's clinical privileges."
If convicted of all charges, Li faces a maximum of 51/2 years in prison for each of the 15 criminal sale charges, and up to 1 year on each of the reckless endangerment counts. He is due in court Dec. 20.
Charles Cornetta, the victim's father, said he was grateful for the arrest. "He's not a doctor as far as I'm concerned," Cornetta said of Li. "He's just a pill pusher."
Lawyer: Li 'followed the rules'
Newsday reported Friday that Li wrote Laffer 24 prescriptions for 2,520 painkillers from October 2009 to June 11 of this year, according to state records. In the first six months of this year, Laffer filled seven prescriptions from Li for 840 hydrocodone tablets. That's nearly half the 1,850 pills Laffer obtained this year from prescriptions, the records show. On June 19, Laffer walked into Haven Drugs in Medford and executed four people before fleeing with thousands of pills.
Wallenstein said that Li had prescribed to Laffer and his wife, Melinda Brady, but said his client discharged them after checking a state database that showed the couple had visited multiple doctors to get prescriptions. "He followed the rules and did what he had to do," Wallenstein said.
At the arraignment, prosecutors said both the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the state Office of Professional Medical Conduct, which is part of the New York State Department of Health, had contacted Li in recent years about his prescribing practices.
Li was the subject of a DEA regulatory investigation "some years back," said Special Agent Erin Mulvey, of the agency's New York field division. Mulvey said the DEA investigated Li for not being properly registered to prescribe methadone to patients addicted to opioids.
Jeffrey Gordon, a state health department spokesman, said he could not comment on any contact the Office of Professional Medical Conduct may have had with Li. Prosecutors said Li's Flushing clinic, Medical Pain Management, has been operating since January 2009 on Saturdays and an occasional Sunday. He would see as many as 120 patients a day, they said, adding that patients lined up outside the clinic before office hours began.
In his clinic, Li posted a fee schedule -- $100 for "low complexity cases" and $150 for "high complexity cases," said a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation who asked not to be named. "High complexity" cases included patients getting three or more prescriptions at once, those with a history of drug dependence and those getting drugs from other doctors, the official said.
Charlotte Fishman, a prosecutor in Brennan's office, said Li has collected $450,000 in fees on top of insurance reimbursements since the clinic opened and funneled the money into an account in his name.