NORTH TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) - A doctor trusted to help drug addicts stands accused of abusing his power to practice medicine. Federal, state and local agents raided the doctor's office in North Tonawanda and his home in Clarence on Friday.
Dr. Matthew Bennett is accused of illegally selling powerful painkillers. The family doctor could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Hours after his arrest, he made his first court appearance, exiting without comment.
Dale Kasprzyk of the Drug Enforcement Administration said, "Dr. Bennett used his prescription pad much like a checkbook."
The 46-year-old is accused of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance.
U.S. Attorney William Hochul said, "The allegations are that Dr. Bennett would perform no medical examinations whatsoever for the people that he was giving these prescriptions to."
What's more, the government alleges that Bennett swapped prescription painkillers for things like a gas grill, toilet paper and home services.
James Burns of the DEA said, "It doesn't make a difference if you're the dope dealer standing on the corner or a physician wearing a white jacket. If you're diverting legal pharmaceuticals to the illicit market, you're a dope dealer just the same."
Authorities also believe that Dr. Bennett is an associate of Dr. Pravin Mehta, the Niagara Falls physician arrested last year on drug distribution charges. They say some patients transferred to Bennett after Mehta closed his office. But what about any staff?
Kasprzyk said, "I'm really not going to comment on that right now. I will confirm to you that some of the patients have gone over. We are in the process of interviewing all of his office staff right now."
The Dr. Bennett investigation began with information federal agents were receiving from local law enforcement.
"That there were people out selling pharmaceuticals that were patients of Dr. Bennett. We believe they were getting pharmaceuticals from Dr. Bennett and turning around and selling them on the street illegally," Kasprzyk explained.
Authorities say Bennett also portrayed himself as a holistic healer. An internet video shows him talking about alternative medicine.
"They like to be able to have the option to choose between a pill and an herb," Bennett said in the video.
In the criminal complaint, it says that on at least six different occasions since May of this year, Dr. Bennett prescribed controlled substances to undercover officers, always without a medical exam and in exchange for something he could use.
According to the criminal complaint, an informant - a regular civilian - usually acted as the go-between. This person would bring the undercovers into Dr. Bennett's office, introduce them as new patients, and then actually tell Dr. Bennett what their supposed medical problems were, what drugs they needed and in what dosages.
Essentially, the informant dictated to Dr. Bennett what drugs he would give out, and what the undercovers would give the doctor in return.
Hochul said, "In exchange for providing these prescriptions, [Dr. Bennett] would accept things like large quantities of paper towels, toilet paper, and most recently, a gas grill."
Kasprzyk added, "We are very, very serious about identifying and arresting anyone - including medical professionals - who are engaged in the illegal distribution of pharmaceuticals."
The negotiations between the informant, the undercovers, and the doctor - their barters - were all recorded and are spelled out in the complaint.
Dr. Bennett was released on a non-financial bond and ordered to surrender his passport.
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