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Indian held in US for illegal online drug sales

Last updated on: December 05, 2003 13:04 IST

Vineet (Vincent) K. Chhabra who lived in an exclusive $5 million enclave in Golden Beach, Florida, intrigued many people in the rich town. For, unlike most millionaires around, Chhabra was very very young. Besides, the 32-year-old man had not been known around till two years ago.

Even then there were very few details about him people knew. It was assumed by some that he was a bright Internet whiz kid who had turned a millionaire overnight and wasn't burnt in the Internet meltdown.

But a different image of Chhabra emerged as on December 3 a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., indicted him and nine others including his sister Sabina, 30, and uncle Sunil K Sethi, 42, in what the United States Attorney Paul J McNulty called "a dangerous new spin on an old problem."

The 61-page indictment alleges that Chhabra, with the help of his uncle, his sister and five physicians, obtained $125 million between December 1998 and June 2003 selling such prescription weight-loss medications such as Bontril, Ionamin, Phentermine, Adipex and Meridia in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The indictment pointed out that these drugs are listed under federal law among medications with limited to moderate danger of physical or psychological independence. It also alleges that the defendants distributed almost 5.9 million doses of the drugs through websites between December 1998 and October 2001 to customers who were either using them in excess or were getting them through deception.

This is the first big case of Internet dispensation of controlled drugs. It is yet another high profile case for McNulty who is handling several 9/11 related cases. "Drug trafficking in cyberspace is just as harmful to public safety as drug trafficking on street corners," he said.

"The advent of the Internet does not mean doctors and pharmacists can bypass rules concerning the dispensing of prescription drugs," he added.

The indictment seeks the forfeiture of $125 million from Chhabra and his associates and lists as possible sources of recovery: 16 cars -- including 4 BMWs, 3 Mercedes-Benzes and sport utility vehicles -- and 72 items of jewelry, including a 4.25-carat sapphire ring following their convictions.

Also, it seeks the bank deposits in several countries including India and the Bahamas. Several Chhabra family members including Anjali and Naresh Chhabra are named as account holders in such banks as State Bank of India and Bank of India.

Chhabra's lawyer Sean Ellsworth however vigorously contested the indictment, asserting that his client had on three occasions offered to surrender himself to the authorities. Chhabra denies any wrongdoing and "looks forward to his day in court," Ellsworth told reporters.

If convicted, Chhabra could serve at least 20 years in a federal prison for criminal enterprise and up to 20 years for money laundering.

The physicians indicted were Daniel L. Thompson, 48, of Ohio; William D. Thompson, 44, of Missouri; Laurence L. Cockerille Jr., 71, of Ohio; Arturo L. Portales, 44, of Kentucky; and Russell A. Johnson, 50, of Virginia.

Also named were Daniel M. Varalli, 54, a pharmacist and co-owner of Rx Direct, a Virginia pharmacy used to distribute controlled substances; and James A. Trovato Jr., 38, who operated drug-selling websites from Ohio.

The indictment also says the defendants simultaneously used two or more pharmacies to provide the same drug to the same person often on the same day. Some of these pharmacies were dedicated solely to distributing and dispensing the drugs.

In some cases, the defendants misused legitimately run pharmacies that overlooked certain requirements. Thus when one pharmacy refused to accept the prescription because the patient had adequate amount of drugs, the indictment says, the defendants "overrode" its professional judgment and sent the prescription to another pharmacy without telling it what had happened till then.

In some cases, the defendants misidentified the physician on their records because the physician who had reviewed the application earlier had taken an oath not to order online medication without a proper physical checkup or obtaining the complete medical history of the patient.

Authorities started looking into Chhabra's business deals about three years ago by raiding an Ohio office from where Chhabra and his sister operated the drug sites and

The Chhabras then shut down business in Ohio and established two new websites and corporations in Virginia, according to the indictment. After some time, when many pharmacies stopped filling prescriptions for the websites in Virginia, the defendants started distributing drugs through pharmacies in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana, according to the indictment.

Arthur J Pais in New York
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