By Mary Pat Flaherty and Gilbert M. Gaul
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 19, 2003
At first blush, Robert J. Fenton seems an unlikely criminal. Rotund and bearded, the 70-year-old patriarch bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. Married in Flushing, N.Y., in 1954, Fenton and his wife, Irene, eventually migrated to Las Vegas, where they opened a pharmaceutical wholesaling company. Their sons and daughters took up the business until the family's reach extended deep into the West and Midwest.
The Fenton clan ran or controlled a web of corporations and pharmacies that bought and sold drugs in the shadow market in pharmaceuticals, passing medications stored in unknowable conditions through an untraceable network, according to numerous court filings. Over the past decade, they bilked drugmakers out of at least $16 million.
Some of Fenton's children ran their own operations, recruiting teams of front men, relying on sophisticated computer programs to track their drug sales and amassing great wealth, investigators found.
The greatest fortune was that of Fenton's daughter Wendy E. Fenton Almanza and her husband, Darin D. Asay, who ran their operations out of a $6 million 12,000-square-foot house in Evergreen, Colo., with 11 bathrooms, a heated outdoor deck, gold leaf in a vestibule, hand-glazed walls, a home theater and a view of the Continental Divide. Still in their thirties, the couple traveled in a Land Rover, a Lamborghini Diablo and their own Beechcraft jet.
Almanza and Asay ordered pharmaceuticals through closed-door pharmacies that they owned or controlled throughout the West. The pharmacies are supposed to serve only nursing homes and hospices, in return for which they receive discounts from drugmakers of as much as 80 percent. The pharmacies sign contracts promising not to sell the drugs in the open market. Almanza claimed to be supplying 1,320 nursing home beds in Golden, Colo. The beds did not exist, her plea agreement shows.
Instead, she and Asay sold those drugs to 12 other wholesalers from New York to California.
The ruse of ordering truckloads of medication for nonexistent customers exploits a regulatory gap. Many state licensing agencies do not distinguish between closed-door and retail pharmacies and are unaware of how many closed-door pharmacies they have. Few drug manufacturers verify the number of nursing home beds that the pharmacies claim to serve.
A tipster exposed Almanza and Asay's operation. Searches in an office above the couple's three-car garage revealed the threat they posed to consumers: recall notices for pharmaceuticals long gone out the door.
Almanza and her husband pleaded guilty in 2000 to mail fraud for opening "at least" eight closed-door pharmacies in six states and cheating 17 pharmaceutical companies out of $9.4 million. Asay was sentenced to 78 months in prison. Almanza received 33 months. She agreed to cooperate with investigators to reduce her prison time. Almanza and Asay declined to be interviewed.
She retrieved computer files and boxes from her parents' home in Las Vegas that showed how the family hid assets, according to her sentencing hearing. Before 2002 ended, Almanza's parents and brother Thomas were in court facing charges of defrauding pharmaceutical makers.
In July 2002, after 17 years in business, the Fentons' Las Vegas wholesaling company, Frontier Pharmaceutical Distributors, relinquished its license to Nevada authorities.
Last month, the family patriarch, Robert Fenton, was sentenced for mail fraud in Cleveland. He was found guilty of handling drugs that had been solicited by a telephone boiler-room operation that randomly called Ohio pharmacists listed in the Yellow Pages and asked if they wanted to make extra money selling off their excess product, court records show. Charges against his wife were dropped.
Fenton received a fine and probation. Prosecutors characterized it as "forced retirement" from the wholesaling business.
But he continues to work, from what he told the court. His wife employs him in a CPR training center she operates in Las Vegas.