Under the terms of the plea agreement, a former Sovah Health-Danville pharmacy technician will serve one to three years in a federal prison for stealing about 13,000 pills from the local hospital. If the judge rejects the agreement, however, she could face as much as 24 years in prison.
Paulette G. Toller, 60, of Chatham, was dressed in a thick wool sweater when she appeared for her hearing in U.S. District Court in Danville on Thursday morning. She sat down next to her attorney, Randy V. Cargill, and leaned over to whisper in his ear, before he passed along a small stack of legal documents.
When court was called to session, Toller and her attorney were called to stand at a wooden podium stationed in the center of the courtroom. There, she pleaded guilty to intent to distribute controlled substances and obtaining controlled substances by fraud. As part of her plea agreement, Toller’s two other drug charges will be dismissed at her sentencing hearing, which is slated for May 21.
Last June, federal authorities and hospital staff discovered thousands of pills — mostly opioids — disappeared over the course of two years starting in 2017. The hospital fired her June 18, 2019.
Toller, according to the terms of her plea agreement, admitted exploiting a flaw in the hospital’s dispensary system to steal the medication.
“At some point prior to June 2017, I became aware of a ‘loophole’ in the software program,” her signed plea agreement states. “By inputting an outdated code for a dispensing unit, I could withdraw controlled substances from the main pharmacy without the withdrawals being tracked by the automated dispensing system.”
She also admits in the agreement to covering up her actions and to selling and using the pills.
“To further conceal this activity, I would remove or destroy the automatically created controlled substance administration record associated with the fraudulent transactions,” she declared in the plea agreement. “I stole the pills both for my personal use and to distribute to others.”
During the 31-minute hearing, Toller’s actions rarely were mentioned. District Judge Jackson Kiser spent much of the time explaining legal terms to her, or asking if she understood her plea agreement.
“Do you understand and agree to these sentencing guidelines?” Kiser asked.
“He told me ...,” Toller answered, before pausing to look down at the stack of legal documents in front of her podium, “if I see it again.”
At that, Kiser read aloud and explained the sentencing guidelines of her plea agreement before again asking if she understood. She nodded her head before saying, “yes sir.”
In another instance, Kiser asked Toller if she had any complaints regarding the officials who dealt with her case. She slowly shook her head side to side, and paused for a couple of seconds.
“No sir,” she said, in a low tone of voice.
Kiser asked her twice, explaining this was her final chance to comment on the issue.
“No ... sir,” she said, a short pause between the two words.
Kiser accepted her answer and went on to ask more questions regarding her comprehension of the consequences of a guilty plea. Once he finished asking questions, Kiser paused before making his ruling.
“I accept the plea,” he said, looking at Toller.
A clerk then handed Toller a guilty plea form and she quickly signed it before passing it to her attorney to look over.
The Virginia Department of Health Professions pulled Toller’s pharmacy license in mid-December, state documents show.
“Ms. Toller is unsafe to practice due to substance abuse,” the findings of fact state. “The registration of Paulette Genetna [sic] Toller, Pharmacy Technician, to practice as a pharmacy technician in the commonwealth of Virginia is REVOKED.”
The hospital would not comment directly about Toller or the investigation due to confidentiality.
“Sovah Health is committed to providing high quality care and service to our patients,” spokeswoman Kelly Fitzgerald wrote in an email. “We take any matter related to an employee very seriously and are cooperating with the investigating authorities.”
Avent is a reporter with the Danville Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 797-7983.