Two ringleaders face top narcotics charge of Operating as a Major Trafficker
Bridget G. Brennan, New York City’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor, and James J. Hunt, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York Division (DEA), and Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks announced today the indictment and arrest of seven defendants, including two alleged leaders of a lucrative scheme to forge prescriptions for addictive opioid painkillers and illegally obtain pills from pharmacies for resale on the black market.
Following a long-term investigation by the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Prescription Drug Investigation Unit, DEA Group D-22 and the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), defendants JOSEPH BIVONA and STEVEN KELLER are charged with running a prescription forgery and drug diversion ring from December 1, 2011 to January 7, 2017.
BIVONA, 45, and KELLER, 53, allegedly employed “runners” to fill forged oxycodone prescriptions at pharmacies in Queens and Brooklyn. The forged prescriptions bore the name of a physician who operates a pain management practice in Astoria, Queens. During the course of the scheme, runners were directed to fill over 930 prescriptions for oxycodone, leading to the dispensing of more than 160,000 pills with a street value of nearly $3 million. The ring scaled back its criminal activity and altered its methods beginning in August of 2013, at approximately the same time that “I-STOP,” New York State’s enhanced Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing, tightened restrictions on the prescribing of controlled substances.
An indictment filed by the Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office charges BIVONA and KELLER with the top narcotics charge of Operating as a Major Trafficker. Additionally, the alleged ringleaders and five runners are charged with Conspiracy in the Fourth Degree, Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument in the Second Degree and Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Third Degree.
This morning, BIVONA was arrested at his home in Queens. KELLER was arrested inside his home in Valley Stream, Long Island. During a court authorized search of KELLER’s home, agents and investigators recovered approximately $60,000 cash. All seven defendants are scheduled to be arraigned today in Manhattan Supreme Court.
Since at least 2011, BIVONA and KELLER allegedly hired family members and friends as runners and paid cash in exchange for filling prescriptions. Despite never having been to see the Astoria doctor, the runners’ names appeared on prescriptions that originated from the clinic. BIVONA and KELLER sometimes drove the runners to the pharmacies and waited outside as the prescriptions were filled.
At the outset of the charged conspiracy, it was not unusual for an individual runner to fill up to eight oxycodone prescriptions in a single month. In general, each prescription was written for 180 pills of 30 mg oxycodone. However, in 2013 the number of prescriptions filled by members of the forgery ring fell to a single prescription per runner each month. This shift coincided with the implementation of New York State’s I-STOP regulations.
Under I-STOP, before a physician can prescribe a controlled substance such as oxycodone, he or she must consult the Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP) Registry, which contains a patient’s prescription history entered by pharmacies in real time. I-STOP was designed in part to prevent individuals from obtaining more prescriptions for a controlled substance than allowed by law in a single month. Pharmacies also have access and the opportunity to check the PMP.
Another provision of I-STOP that went into effect in March of 2016 mandates that physicians issue electronic prescriptions, rather than paper prescriptions. Electronic prescriptions are in part intended to prevent prescription forgeries. However, a physician can apply for a waiver in order to continue issuing paper prescriptions, and at least one pharmacy had a waiver-related document from the pain management clinic on file.
Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan thanked Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown, her office’s Prescription Drug Investigation Unit, the U.S. Drug Administration’s (DEA) Group D-22, the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) and the New York State Health Department’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.
“There is a close link between the illegal traffic in pain pills and record numbers of overdose deaths in New York City,” said Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan. “We will continue our efforts to identify and prosecute anyone involved in this deadly trade.”
DEA Special Agent in Charge James Hunt stated, “It is alleged that Bivona and Keller schemed to profit off of other people’s addictions by pushing diverted oxycodone onto New York City’s black market since 2011. Evident by today’s arrests, law enforcement is committed to identifying prescription drug rings whose crimes contribute to opioid misuse within our communities.”
“Our partnership with the NYC Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office and the New York Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in identifying and investigating potentially fraudulent behavior has yielded positive results,” said Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks. “I commend the work of those involved in this multi-agency effort that will ensure these individuals are brought to justice as quickly as possible and we look forward to our continuing collaboration.”
The charges and allegations are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.Download Press Release
Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
New York Division
NYC Human Resources Administration