Pharmacist gets 2.5 years

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

ALBANY, Ga. -- A federal court judge has ordered that a prominent Camilla pharmacist spend the next two and half years in federal prison and pay back roughly $2.8 million in funds he was convicted of taking from Medicaid.

J. Harris Morgan and a large contingent of his friends and family filled to capacity the U.S. District Court room at a sentencing hearing Wednesday morning.

Morgan was convicted of overbilling Medicaid $2.8 million in payments for the respiratory drug Synagis, which is given to children with chronic respiratory ailments.

While the 30-month sentence is more than Morgan's attorneys and friends had asked the court for, it was short of the six-year maximum recommended by the U.S. Attorney's office in its sentence recommendation.

In rendering the sentence, Sands also asked for information on Morgan's condition before determining when he should report to prison. According to statements made in court, Morgan has been diagnosed with cancer.

During the hearing, Morgan attorney Stephen Sadow called three character witnesses to explain to U.S. District Court Judge Louis Sands why they believe he should be given mercy.

Longtime friends Cader Cox and Judd Vann each told Sands that Morgan has suffered enough through having his business stripped from him and losing the wealth he'd spent his life accumulating.

"He's presided over the collapse of everything he worked his entire life to build," Cox said. "If the government's intent was to punish Harris Morgan, what more can they take from my friend? I'm begging you,

Judge Sands, don't send my friend to jail."

Also called to the stand was former Federal Trade Commissioner and deputy U.S. Commerce Secretary Orson Swindle, who told Sands that sentencing Morgan to prison would be a death sentence because of the cancer that he has developed since he was charged.

"Be careful not to make a mistake a crime," Swindle told Sands. "Good people make mistakes, but mistakes aren't crimes. This was just an awful mistake ... This man is not a felon. He made a mistake, a costly mistake, but he's not a felon."

The sentencing caps a six-year investigation into Morgan's Thrift Center Pharmacy in Camilla. Last year, a jury convicted Morgan on 69 of 70 counts of an indictment alleging a scheme to defraud Medicaid between 2002 and 2004.

During Wednesday's hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Dasher told Sands the government believes the $2.8 million Morgan was convicted of overbilling Medicaid was a "conservative" figure based on a narrow slice of time and that they believe the figure is actually much larger.

The government maintains that of the $26 million in Medicaid payments Thrift Center Pharmacy had received in total, that $20 million were for the drug in question.

The first portion of Wednesday's hearing was dedicated mostly to an objection filed by Morgan's attorneys who were arguing that the $2.8 million "statement of loss," alleged by the U.S. Attorney's office didn't accurately reflect what the true losses were.

After hearing testimony from Joseph Katz, a statistician who compiled the information used as a basis for the government's assertion, Sands ruled just after 12:30 p.m. that the government's figure could stand.

That number is one of the factors that government officials use to develop pre-sentencing guidelines that Sands will ultimately use to determine what sentence to impose on Morgan.

Morgan, a force in Mitchell County politics and development, was forced to resign from many of the boards and service organizations of which he was a member, including the Mitchell County Economic

Development Authority.