There's no shortage of doctors among the human faces that define the opioid epidemic.
One of them, a well-known and well-regarded Amherst radiologist, is going to prison for two years.
Albert R. Cowie, a recovering drug addict who admitted writing fraudulent prescriptions for painkillers, stood before a federal judge Thursday and apologized to his family, patients and colleagues.
Cowie, a 38-year-old graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Medicine, said he used the painkillers to feed his own addiction. He also acknowledged writing illegal prescriptions for his now-former wife.
"With a clear conscience, I can say under oath, that I have been clean for approximately three years," Cowie told the court Thursday.
As part of an agreement with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to two felony charges, health care fraud and obtaining controlled substances by fraud, and was facing a recommended sentence of up to 30 months in prison when he was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo.
Arrested in 2015 outside his offices at Diagnostic Imaging Associates in Amherst, Cowie was initially accused of writing 280 illegal prescriptions over a four-year period ending in early 2014.
He also was accused of establishing a relationship with a prostitute, injecting her with heroin on one occasion and later giving her prescriptions for Xanax and Percocet.
Cowie did not admit to those crimes as part of his plea deal, but prosecutors said he agreed the allegations at the root of those charges could be considered by the court in weighing a prison sentence.
"His addiction hijacked his career and indeed his life," said Acting U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy.
Prosecutors claim Cowie also wrote prescriptions for four others, some of them known addicts, in what Kennedy called a "kind of friends and family plan."
"We found that conduct to be reprehensible," said Robert Gross, supervisory special agent in charge of the FBI's Health Care Fraud Task Force.
Vilardo, in sentencing Cowie, echoed those concerns. He mentioned a man who received three prescriptions for Percocet from Cowie even though he had disclosed his addiction to the doctor and asked him to stop giving him more pills.
'That's bad stuff," Vilardo told him. "That's very troubling."
During his statement to the judge, Cowie outlined his recovery, including work with Alcoholics Anonymous, the Committee for Physicians Health and The World Through Your Eyes, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping people with addictions.
"I have told my story of my self-inflicted fall as a cautionary tale to reinforce to the community at large that this disease can affect anyone regardless of education and social standing," he told Vilardo.
Cowie, who received his undergraduate degree from Canisius College, is the sixth Western New York doctor to be charged with distributing illegal drugs over the past several years.
His guilty plea last year came just three days after Dr. Pravin V. Mehta of Niagara Falls was sentenced to two years in prison for illegally dispensing pain medication.
At the time of Cowie's guilty plea last year, defense attorney Robert M. Goldstein said the future of his client's medical license was still up in the air.
Cowie reportedly signed a consent decree with the state that will delay action on his license until after his sentencing. He is currently without the authority to prescribe medications.
In seeking leniency for his client, Goldstein reminded Vilardo that, unlike some of the other doctors who have been convicted of prescription pill abuse, Cowie was never motivated by greed.
"This was not a matter of my client trying to make more money," Goldstein said.
Cowie’s guilty plea is the result of a prosecution by Assistant U.S. Attorney George C. Burgasser and an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and Amherst police.