December 19, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
29°F
test

Pharmacy owners indicted on federal drug charges

Two owners of Medicine Center on Cleveland Street in Elyria have been indicted on federal charges. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

The owners of two pharmacies, including The Medicine Center Pharmacy on Cleveland Street in Elyria, have been indicted on federal charges. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

The owners of two Lorain County pharmacies raided last year have been indicted on federal charges accusing them of illegally selling painkillers and engaging in various schemes to hide their profits, according to a federal indictment made public this week.

Osama Salouha, who owns Southside Pharmacy in Lorain and the Medicine Center Pharmacy in Elyria, used his pharmacy license to distribute painkillers such as oxycodone to customers of the two locations and conspired to cover up the proceeds, prosecutors said.

The indictment said Salouha failed to properly screen customers when he was filling prescriptions, circumventing rules designed to prevent people from obtaining drugs to abuse.

For instance, Salouha regularly filled painkiller prescriptions early, “thus allowing customers to obtain more pills over time than the physicians’ prescriptions allowed.”

He also allegedly filled prescriptions that had been rejected by other pharmacists and engaged in other practices designed to keep customers. He is accused of dispensing medication to one customer who used someone else’s name.

“It was further part of the conspiracy that Osama Salouha prevented employees from questioning customers who appeared to be drug seekers,” the indictment said.

He also allegedly purchased large quantities of the painkiller Oxycontin after the manufacturer announced in 2010 that it would reformulate the drug to make it harder to crush and otherwise ingest in an abusive manner.

Once the reformulated version of Oxycontin hit the market, the indictment said, Salouha cut orders for that drug and “dramatically increased his purchase orders” for other painkillers that didn’t have the same safeguards against abuse.

In court documents filed last year, prosecutors wrote that for its small size, Southside was buying huge quantities of oxycodone compared to those that were purchased by the main campus of the Cleveland Clinic. In 2012, Southside bought 581,800 tablets of the painkiller, while the Cleveland Clinic pharmacy purchased 261,440 tablets.

Sbeih Sbeih, the co-owner of Southside, allegedly worked with Salouha to cover up the illegal sales and also conspired to defraud the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, said the news release sent Wednesday by U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio Steven Dettelbach’s office.

Both Salouha, who lived in Strongsville, and Sbeih, of North Olmsted, are pharmacists, authorities said.

The scheme allegedly involved international money laundering by making wire transfers to overseas bank accounts. A lawsuit filed by federal officials last year seeks the forfeiture of nearly $2.3 million in bank deposits and cash, three cars and two homes.

The court documents filed last year said between 2007 and 2011, Southside did nearly $22.8 million in business that was moved through a variety of personal and business accounts controlled by Sbeih and Salouha. Some of the accounts, according to prosecutors, were in the names of Salouha’s children.

Salouha and his wife, Samah Salouha, also face charges of making false statements to law enforcement. The couple and their children left the country May 12, 2013, just days after the raids and following interviews with law enforcement, according to the indictment.

In total, the three people charged this week face 53 criminal charges.

Sbeih denied being involved with criminal activity in an interview with The Chronicle-Telegram last July.

“I know that nothing illegal is happening at Southside,” he said then.

Northern Ohio has suffered a spike in heroin and other painkiller-related overdose deaths in the past year. Dettelbach said in the news release the investigation is part of the effort to curb those problems.

“The opioid and heroin epidemic in this state is fueled by drug dealers out to make money,” Dettelbach said in the release. “Whether the evidence leads to a cartel, a stash house or behind a pharmacy counter, we will follow it, and we will hold these profiteers accountable.”

The investigation included cooperation among a large number of law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Lorain County Drug Task Force, the IRS, the FBI and others.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @BradDickenCT.