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9/7/2004

Florida Internet Pharmacy Owners Plead Guilty

Donna Young

Nearly nine months after a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., indicted a Florida owner of several Internet pharmacies and his sister for conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, the two persons agreed last week to plead guilty.

Vineet K. Chhabra of Golden Beach, Fla., who also uses the first name Vincent, faces up to 33 months in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 3, according to the Department of Justice.

His sister, Sabina S. Faruqui of Weston, Fla., was sentenced to 12 months' probation.

Two of Chhabra's online pharmacy operationsChhabra Group LLC and VKC Consulting LLCalso pleaded guilty last week and, along with Chhabra and Faruqui, agreed to forfeit "all proceeds of their illegal activity," according to the Justice Department.

The United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia in December 2003 charged Chhabra, Faruqui, and eight others, including five physicians and a pharmacist, with illegally selling prescription drugs over the Internet.

The pharmacist, Daniel M. Varalli, pleaded guilty in April to conspiring to unlawfully distribute and dispense Schedule III and Schedule IV controlled substances.

Other related charges in the case were brought against Luke Coukos, a Virginia pharmacist who pleaded guilty in December 2003 to illegally dispensing medications.

Coukos admitted that he dispensed at least 43,066 prescriptions of controlled substances, "which resulted in the distribution and dispensing of and at least 146,212 pills of Schedule III drugs and at least 2.5 million pills of Schedule IV drugs, all in violation of federal law," according to the government's Statement of Facts in the case.

Coukos was sentenced in March to 60 months in prison and was fined $140,318the total amount of wages he received from October 1999 to August 2000 from Chhabra's illicit online pharmacy operation.

This was not the first time Coukos had been in trouble.

In 1990, the Virginia pharmacist surrendered his pharmacy license for five years after pleading guilty to six felony offenses of defrauding the state and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Virginia, according to the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety.

Before the U.S. Attorney's Office brought its charges in 2003, New Jersey sued Coukos, Varalli and two of the physicians who were indicted in the Virginia case and several Internet pharmacies in 2000 in an attempt to stop illicit online pharmacy operations from illegally dispensing drug products to residents in the state.

"Ordering prescription drugs should not be as easy as ordering fast food," said New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Director Mark S. Herr in a December 20, 2000, statement.

Customers ordered prescription drugs, including controlled substances, over the Internet at one of Chhabra's Web sites by simply choosing the type and dosage strength of a drug on an online form or by calling a toll-free telephone number, according to the Justice Department.

The physicians indicted in the Virginia case allowed their names to be used as the prescribing physician on the vials of the medications, even though none of those physicians ever spoke to or cared for the patients ordering the prescription drugs, according to court documents.

Some of the 10 defendants indicted in the case are still awaiting court hearings or sentencing, according to the Justice Department. At least three of the physicians named in the case have pleaded guilty.