Chinese fentanyl, the Dark Web, and over-prescribing doctors: AG Sessions talks combating opioid epidemic in Cleveland
Updated 4:46 PM; Posted 3:00 PM
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Attorney General Jeff Sessions touted multiple recent actions by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland that he believes will have a significant impact on the opioid scourge that continues to kill Americans at record rates.
The announcements made Wednesday during Sessions’ news conference in Cleveland involved the Dark Web, Chinese fentanyl dealers and two northern Ohio doctors accused of over-prescribing prescription pills.
“We are determined to do all we can to reduce these deaths,” Sessions said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re beginning to see some progress and we’re going to continue to step up our efforts in every way possible.”
Sessions spoke alongside U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman and other Justice Department officials. He mostly stuck to talking about law enforcement activity regarding prescription and synthetic opioids in an effort to reduce the number of overdose deaths nationwide.
He did, however, appear to briefly address the flurry of news that happened Tuesday regarding criminal actions by people who worked on President Donald Trump’s campaign. Wednesday marked Sessions’ first public appearance since a jury found former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty of financial fraud crimes. The convictions came the same day Trump lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to, among other things, facilitating the payment of hush money to two women who said they had affairs with the president.
Sessions, whose recusal from an investigation into the 2016 presidential election makes him a favorite target of Trump’s Twitter ire, said everyone was aware of the activities of his Justice Department and that he would not specifically comment.
“But this Department of Justice is focused on the priorities this president and the American people have given us,” Sessions said, citing the opioid crisis, violent crime and immigration.
The announcements Sessions made included:
• Obtaining temporary restraining orders against doctors in Akron and Sandusky, preventing them from prescribing medication. Officials say they over-prescribed painkillers and other drugs.
• An indictment against two men in China, charging them with manufacturing and shipping fentanyl analogues and other drugs to at least 25 countries, including the U.S. A Boston-area chemist pleaded guilty in federal court in Akron this month to receiving shipments from the organization and sending the drugs to multiple states, including Ohio.
• “Operation Darkness Falls,” in which several people were charged with selling fentanyl and other drugs on the Dark Web. Several of those defendants are Ohio residents.
Herdman previously said his office is focusing on investigating drug cases involving the Dark Web.
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Temporary restraining orders against Ohio doctors
Sessions announced that the Justice Department obtained temporary restraining orders against Ohio Drs. Michael Tricaso and Gregory Gerber that prevent them from writing prescriptions.
Federal prosecutors say Tricaso, who operates the Better Living Clinic in Akron and serves as a doctor to a gym in Painesville, sold steroids and Percocet to a man without any apparent medical need. Tricaso and the man, who was a source for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, met in a hotel parking lot several times for their transactions, according to a news release.
Gerber, who works in Sandusky, received $175,000 between 2013 and 2016 from Insys Therapeutics to promote Subsys, a liquid form of fentanyl used to treat pain for cancer patients.
Such payments are illegal, prosecutors say.
The doctor also saw an undercover agent several times in October. The agent did not complain about pain and Gerber did only a minimal medical examination, but each time Gerber prescribed medication such as OxyContin, Dronabinol and Xanax, authorities say.
Court records show the temporary restraining orders were filed after prosecutors filed lawsuits last week. They were unsealed this week, after federal agents conducted search warrants related to both men in ongoing criminal investigations, records say.
Sessions said the Justice Department’s lawsuit seeks up to $700,000 in damages from Tricaso. He said estimates of false claims Gerber may have submitted to Medicare total $2.8 million.
Tricaso and Gerber did not return phone calls left at their offices.
The Justice Department says the temporary restraining orders obtained against both doctors are the first ones ever obtained under the Controlled Substances Act against doctors accused of illegal prescribing practices.
Fujing Zheng (left) and Guanghua Zheng
Accused Chinese drug manufacturers and shippers
Sessions also announced an indictment against two Chinese men that authorities say are tied to several cases being handled by federal prosecutors in northern Ohio.
Fujing Zheng, aka Gordon Jin, and his father Guanghua Zheng, who both live in Shanghai, are named in a 43-count indictment that charges them with manufacturing and shipping fentanyl analogues and 250 other drugs to 25 countries and 37 U.S. states.
A grand jury handed up the indictment on Aug. 17 and it was unsealed Wednesday.
The pair used several companies with names such as Global United Biotechnology, Golden Chemicals, Cambridge Chemicals and Wonda Science. They also maintained numerous websites to sell the drugs in more than 35 languages between 2008 and today, authorities say.
The Zhengs had people who worked with them in several countries, including the U.S. Authorities arrested Boston-area chemist Bin Wang in 2017, and he pleaded guilty Aug. 6 to receiving drugs from the Zhengs and then shipping them throughout the United States.
Wang, 43, faces a recommended sentence of between 57 and 71 months in federal prison when he is sentenced Nov. 13. A native of China and citizen of Canada, he faces possible deportation after he completes his prison sentence.
More significantly, this is the first time federal prosecutors publicly linked drugs the pair are accused of making and shipping to the deaths of Akron residents Thomas Rauh and Carrie Dobbins.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Leroy Steele and his girlfriend Sabrina Robinson in connection to Rauh’s death. Prosecutors say Steele emailed an address belonging to the Zheng organization in February 2015 in order to buy “acetylfetnanyl.” Steele then sold drugs to Rauh, who died on March 21, 2015.
Sessions said federal agents contacted Steele’s supplier after his arrest and bought fentanyl analogues.
“That led us straight to the Zheng organization,” Sessions said.
Co-defendant Ryan Sumlin sold some of the synthetic opioids from the shipment sent to Steele to Dobbins, who fatally overdosed on March 28, 2015.
A jury found Sumlin guilty of federal charges in April. He is set to be sentenced on Thursday.
It is unclear whether the Zhengs will ever face U.S. prosecution. Neither is in custody.
Dark Web fentanyl
Sessions announced that prosecutors in northern Ohio had charged multiple people from across the country with selling fentanyl and other drugs on the Dark Web.
Named “Operation Darkness Falls,” Sessions said the biggest fish caught by authorities were husband-and-wife duo Matthew and Holly Roberts of San Antonio, Texas. The pair, arrested in April, mainly worked under the moniker “MH4Life,” selling drugs between 2011 and 2018 on sites such as Dream Market, Silk Road, AlphaBay, Darknet Heroes and others, officials say.
Investigators believe Matthew and Holly Roberts, who are both 35, operated as the most prolific Dark Wet fentanyl vendor in the U.S. and the fourth most prolific in the world, with thousands of transactions over several years.
They were paid with cryptocurrency, which the couple then converted into U.S. currency. They then bought goods and services, along with prepaid credit cards and gift cards, officials say.
Court records show that both are discussing resolving their cases without being indicted. Such discussions often, but not always, lead to plea agreements.