Federal Prosecutors Work Up the Chain and Convict California Man Trafficking Fentanyl into Southwest Virginia
Abingdon, VIRGINIA – An Abingdon Nurse practitioner, who illegally distributed opiates and other prescription drugs while working at a substance abuse program, was sentenced last week to serve 60 months in prison, United States Attorney Thomas T. Cullen and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced.
Matthew Justin Sykes, 43, pleaded guilty on May 7, 2018 to one count of conspiring to (a) misbrand a drug in interstate commerce by causing prescription drugs to be dispensed without a valid prescription and (b) illegally distribute Schedule III and IV controlled substances. In addition, he pleaded guilty to eight counts of distributing oxycodone, a Schedule II opiate, one count of distributing alprazolam, a Schedule IV benzodiazepine, and one count of using the United States Postal Service in committing, causing or facilitating a felony drug trafficking offense.
“This medical professional violated the public’s trust by unlawfully dispensing these deadly drugs,” U.S. Attorney Cullen stated. “We will continue to work with our federal, state, and local partners, including Attorney General Mark Herring, to identify and target those in the medical community who put profits before patients, and, in so doing, help fuel the opioid epidemic.”
“The opioid crisis has hit Southwest Virginia as hard as anywhere, and illegal prescription drugs have been a huge part of the problem. As part of our comprehensive approach to the opioid crisis, my team and I have pursued enforcement action against more than 300 medical professionals, like doctors, nurses, and others, who overprescribe, divert, or steal opioids. This conviction wouldn’t have been possible without the strong partnership between my office and U.S. Attorney Cullen’s, and I look forward to continuing our work to make Southwest Virginia safer.”
“Distributing addictive, opioid drugs where there is not a legitimate medical purpose poses a serious threat to the U.S. public health and will not be tolerated,” said Mark S. McCormack, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations, Metro Washington Field Office. “The FDA is committed to bringing to justice those unscrupulous actors who use their access to these powerful drugs as a way to enrich themselves by distributing them without valid prescriptions.”
According to evidence presented at previous hearings, Sykes was employed by Watauga Recovery Center from March 2012 until April 2017, a practice that holds itself out as a substance abuse treatment program. Watauga Recovery Center has locations in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. Sykes worked primarily at Watauga Recovery Center’s Duffield, Virginia, office. Sykes was also employed by E & C Counseling, another practice holding itself out as a substance abuse treatment center, located in Abingdon, Virginia. Sykes had a valid DEA registration number during this time, which was surrendered in May 2017.
Sykes admitted to conspiring with other health care providers and employees at Watauga Recovery Centers, a cash payment practice, to regularly prescribe a combination of buprenorphine, clonazepam, and gabapentin, without a legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional practice. This included issuing prescriptions to patients knowing there was no legitimate reason to do so, and prescribing three dosage units of buprenorphine per day to patients, knowing that at least one of the three doses would be diverted and sold. In addition, Sykes and his co-conspirators would cause prescriptions to be issued in the name of a prescriber who had not examined the patient.
In addition, on multiple occasions from January 2014 until April 2017, Sykes wrote prescriptions for Schedule II controlled substances in various individuals’ names. These prescriptions were not recorded in regular patient files of Watauga Recovery Center or E & C Counseling. The prescriptions were filled at various pharmacies located in the Western District of Virginia. Some of these prescriptions were filled by Sykes himself without the individual’s knowledge or consent, while others were filled by the individuals, who then gave Sykes part of the controlled substances dispensed by the pharmacies. Sykes has admitted that he wrote the prescriptions and that they were issued without a legitimate medical purpose and beyond the bounds of professional practice.
On October 30, 2017, Sykes received a package at his home in Abingdon, Virginia, delivered by the United States Postal Service, which contained alprazolam, a schedule IV controlled substance. Sykes has stated that he ordered this alprazolam from an anonymous internet source on the “dark web.” He has stated that he had been ordering and receiving controlled substances from several different anonymous sources on the dark web since 2013, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, Adderall, and alprazolam, and that he has given and sold controlled substances ordered on the dark web to other individuals.
This case is part of an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration-Office of Criminal Investigations, Virginia Office of the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, Drug Enforcement Administration, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Virginia State Police, and the United States Postal Inspection Service.
Special Assistant United States Attorney/Virginia Assistant Attorney General Janine Myatt and Assistant United States Attorney Randy Ramseyer prosecuted the case for the United States.