The leader of a ring that sold weight-loss drugs and other controlled substances over the Internet pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge yesterday even as he defended his business and insisted that he never intended to harm patients.
Vineet K. Chhabra entered his plea in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. That brought to seven the number of people who have pleaded guilty in the scheme that federal officials say illegally distributed millions of pills to Virginia, Maryland, the District and four other states.
Eleven people from five states, along with three corporations, have been charged in the complex investigation that has lasted nearly three years. If all are convicted, the defendants face forfeitures of up to $125 million in proceeds along with such luxury items as Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, jewelry that included a diamond tennis bracelet and "seven Platinum toe rings," and a baby grand piano.
The case spotlights the growing problem of people using the Internet as a pipeline for controlled substances and other potentially dangerous drugs. Tens of millions of pills now flow each year from rogue online pharmacies to customers nationwide. The Alexandria investigation is one of the largest multistate efforts in a recent federal crackdown.
Federal officials have been investigating Chhabra, 32, of Golden Beach, Fla., for several years and say he was owner or part-owner of businesses that operated the Web sites. Others from Virginia charged in the case include a Salem pharmacist and a Chester physician, who have pleaded guilty, and a pharmacy owner from Midlothian who is among the final four defendants scheduled to go on trial next week.
Chhabra pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and will be sentenced to 33 months in prison when he appears again Dec. 3 before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema.
He told Brinkema yesterday that he started his businesses in Ohio, moved them to Virginia when Ohio medical board officials expressed concerns about their legality and then moved them again to Florida when state officials in Virginia raised similar concerns.
The Web sites allowed customers to obtain drugs by filling out online questionnaires or through telephone consultations, without ever seeing a doctor in person, as required by federal law. Asked by Brinkema if he ever had concerns about the health effects on patients, Chhabra said doctors he worked with assured him that the practice was safe.
"The way we operated the business was very responsible," he said. "I wasn't trying to harm any patients.''
Chhabra's sister, Sabina S. Faruqui, also pleaded guilty yesterday to a single conspiracy count and was sentenced to 12 months' probation. Her lawyer described her as an office manager for her brother's companies. Chhabra and Faruqui are cooperating in the investigation.
Federal officials described the Web business as family run, and said Chhabra had made his parents officers. But Brian D. Miller, counsel to U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, told Brinkema that the government has no plans to prosecute Chhabra's parents.