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Did Ken Shobola step over the line? Or did the government overreach?

Prosecutors claimed the Tampa pharmacist operated a cyberspace drug mill. He said he did no wrong, but surrendered $400,000 in assets.

By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published December 10, 2006


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THE LAWSUIT

In January 2005, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa sought the forfeiture of 18 vehicles and three pieces of property owned by Kenneth O. Shobola, a Tampa pharmacist. The government claimed the assets were purchased with proceeds from illegal drug transactions. Shobola owned several Internet drug sites and four clinics in Tampa and Kissimmee. The businesses, which had $7.6-million in sales in 2004, employed doctors who prescribed mostly hydrocodone, a narcotic painkiller, to out-of-state patients.

THE SETTLEMENT

In October, Shobola forfeited assets with an approximate total value of $400,000. They include 15 cars, $15,000 in cash and $55,000 from the pending sale of a vacant lot in Tampa. No criminal charges have been filed against Shobola, who holds a Florida pharmacist license.

SHOBOLA'S BUSINESSES

Web sites: www.medsviaweb.com, www.medsviaweb.net, www.modernlifestylesmeds.com, www.netpain.com

Status: Shobola closed these sites voluntarily in November 2004

Clinics: In September 2004, Shobola had three Ken Drugs pharmacy/clinics in Tampa and one in Kissimmee

Status: He owns a Ken Drugs Pharmacy/Kenneday Medical Clinic at 4730 N Habana Ave., Tampa, and another in Kissimmee

Kenneth O. Shobola, a Tampa pharmacist, paid a high price in October to get the federal government off his back.

In order to settle a 2-year-old civil forfeiture case, Shobola, 45, gave the government 15 vehicles - including a $75,000 BMW - plus $15,000 in cash and $55,000 from the sale of a vacant lot in Tampa. All told, nearly $400,000 was forfeited.

In making the costly concessions, Shobola did not admit wrongdoing for operating four medical clinics and a number of Web sites that reaped millions of dollars primarily from the sale of addictive pain medications like Vicodin.

Through his attorney, Shobola defended his dispensing practices and blasted the lawsuit, which claimed the fleet of cars and three properties were bought with proceeds "traceable to illegal drug transactions." It was, his lawyer argued in a motion to dismiss the complaint, "a classic example of government overreaching."

Regardless, Shobola's case provides a window into how the government is struggling to police rapidly proliferating Internet drug sites. Garrison Courtney, a spokesman with the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, D.C., said regulators end up playing the equivalent of a "whack-a-mole" game with drug sites that can appear and disappear in a matter of minutes.

"We searched on the word 'Oxycontin' about a week ago and came up with over 50,000 Web sites," he said. "But by the time law enforcement gets to a site, it could be disengaged. And tracking it back to the operator is harder than many people think."

According to court documents, Shobola's doctors never saw patients in person and seldom reviewed their medical histories before prescribing painkillers. So was his Internet business a legitimate medical practice or a cyberspace drug mill?

"It's a very complicated area where the law and the 21st century are trying to converge," said John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor and Tampa lawyer who was not involved in the Shobola case.

"If you have clearly egregious conduct vs. a Web site that might be close to the line, neither the government nor the defendant may be willing to bet the ranch on where that line is located."

Dale Sisco, a Tampa lawyer who represented Shobola in the forfeiture case, said the settlement was simply a matter of expediency.

"In the long run, it was probably cheaper than the cost of litigation," he said, noting that his client voluntarily closed his Web sites soon after the government's investigation became public. "The settlement was not perfect, but it gave Ken some flexibility."

Shobola, who worked as a pharmacist for Eckerd and Medco Health Solutions in Tampa before launching his drug businesses in 2002, declined to be interviewed.

Federal officials refused to comment. But the forfeiture complaint in U.S. District Court in Tampa details the government's nearly two-year investigation of his Internet and retail operations, which did business in Tampa and Kissimmee as Ken Drugs and Kenaday Medical Clinic.

Investigators from five agencies conducted 17 undercover buys of painkillers from Shobola's Web sites and stores. Authorities gathered evidence from customers in Kentucky, Connecticut and West Virginia who said they had no problem getting addictive drugs - using an assortment of aliases and addresses - from Shobola's operations.

Shobola's doctors told investigators that nearly all their patients were out-of-state residents who paid $120 to $125 for a brief phone consult, then received the drugs by mail. The doctors said the vast majority of prescriptions they wrote were for hydrocodone, popularly known as Vicodin, Norco and Lortab. Records showed that from June 2002 through June 2003, Shobola's businesses filled more than 50,000 prescriptions, most for hydrocodone.

Though Shobola didn't start his Web sites until 2002, they quickly became a booming business. Financial records showed 2003 sales of $5.3-million; in the first nine months of 2004, sales were $7.6-million.

No criminal charges have been brought against Shobola, a U.S. citizen of Nigerian descent educated in England. And though the Florida pharmacy board conducted an investigation, Shobola has maintained his state pharmacist license.

"He's growing his business again," Sisco said of his client. "He's got a pharmacy in Tampa and another in Kissimmee, but his operations are nowhere near the size and scope they were previously."

The fall has been steep for Shobola, whose remaining Ken Drugs in Tampa is a sparsely decorated suite in a medical office complex on North Habana Avenue.

In early 2004, Shobola not only owned a booming pharmacy business, with three clinics in Tampa, one in Kissimmee and an Internet presence, he opened Faze 2 Lounge, a "nightclub for adults," on Busch Boulevard and a gym, Tranzitions, on nearby Fletcher Avenue. Shobola offered VIP memberships and stretch limo rides to both attractions.

But Shobola, who had a full-time bodyguard/driver and a home in Lutz with an indoor pool, soon ran into problems. In February, he was named among the defendants in a wrongful death claim filed by the widow of Michael E. Toole. Toole was a former bank auditor in Columbia, S.C., who committed suicide after buying painkillers through one of Shobola's Web sites. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

By March, the landlord of Shobola's nightclub had sued for late rent and neighbors were claiming about the noise.

In September, 50 law officers raided Shobola's four pharmacy/clinics and his office at 10004 N Dale Mabry Highway, hauling away boxes of documents.

Then, just before Christmas 2004, authorities confiscated 18 vehicles registered in the name of Shobola, his wife Omaemo or one of his corporations. They included five Lexuses, a 2003 Hummer, a 2000 Jaguar and the 2003 BMW that had been a birthday gift to his wife.

In addition to taking Shobola's fleet of cars, federal officials made a claim on three of his properties: the $1.5-million home on Berger Road in Lutz, the health club on E Fletcher Avenue and a vacant lot on Tampa's Cachet Isle Drive.

In January 2005, just a few weeks before the U.S. Attorney's office filed its forfeiture complaint, Shobola was hit with a divorce lawsuit. Married for 18 years, the couple has three children.

Responding to the divorce filing, Shobola said he had debts of nearly $1.6-million, including $250,000 in unpaid taxes for 2003, 2004 and 2005 and $200,000 set aside for legal fees "if indicted."

With his pharmacy operations curtailed in response to government pressure and his nightclub closed in late 2005, Shobola estimated his income for the year would be $76,200.

Shobola's lawyer said his client suffered financial hardship by having his assets tied up for two years in the forfeiture action. As for Shobola's future, Sisco declined to speculate.

"It's been more than two years since the search warrants were executed, and as of now, there have been no criminal charges," he said. "But I don't anticipate anyone is going to call me up and tell me he's free and clear."

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or 727 892-2996.

[Last modified December 9, 2006, 21:37:34]


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