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A Beaufort doctor faces nine or more years in prison after admitting in federal court Monday that he wrote painkiller prescriptions for people who did not need them in exchange for cocaine.
David Vincent Rhodes, 47, who has been on indefinite leave from his practice since May, pleaded guilty at a hearing in Charleston to conspiracy to possess and distribute oxycodone.
Although the charges could bring as many as 20 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines, Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips has asked that Rhodes pay $150,000 -- the amount of proceeds from his illegal activity -- and receive a sentence of nine years to 11 years and three months.
Rhodes declined to comment after the hearing.
Prosecutors said Rhodes has agreed to cooperate with an ongoing investigation that in August resulted in a federal grand-jury indictment of 18 others, all from the Beaufort County area. Most were arrested in a roundup by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Marshals Service. One of the 18, Jason Heape Harriott, has pleaded guilty, Phillips said.
Six others have been added to that indictment as of Jan. 8.
As part of the agreement, Rhodes will provide documents and grand-jury testimony, take a polygraph, and provide other "substantial assistance" to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Judge Sol Blatt Jr. instructed at Monday's hearing.
All 24 people are charged with conspiring to acquire and sell oxycodone and cocaine, according to the indictment.
Rhodes was not named in the indictment. However, shortly after searching his Lowcountry Medical Group office in the Shell Point area of Port Royal in May, authorities said he was at the center of an investigation.
On Monday, Phillips acknowledged the cases were related.
Phillips said that in 2011, the DEA and local law enforcement acted on a tip from pharmacies and began investigating an influx of oxycodone in the Beaufort area.
Phillips said that if Rhodes' case had gone to trial, the U.S. Attorney's Office would have used corroborating witnesses, text messages, records and the doctor's admission of guilt during the search of his office to prove criminal activity.
Rhodes started by writing prescriptions to a few people without a medical reason, Phillips said. The scheme expanded until he was writing prescriptions for people brought in by his co-conspirators, "knowing the pills would not go to the patients."
"That is substantially true and correct," Rhodes told Blatt.
Rhodes probably will not be sentenced until the cases against those under indictment are settled, Phillips said. He has waived his right to appeal his sentence, even if it is more than the U.S. attorney's recommendation.
It's not clear if more indictments will follow. Phillips declined further comment on the investigation except to say it continues.
The S.C. Board of Medical Examiners indefinitely suspended Rhodes' medical license May 7. A letter from the board to Rhodes did not specify the reason for the disciplinary action, state records show.
His license remained suspended as of Monday and will expire June 30 if no further action is taken.