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Appeals Court Upholds 27 Month Prison Sentence Of Former Penn National Horse Trainer


The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced that on Jan. 11, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed both the conviction and 27-month prison sentence of Murray Rojas, age, 54, of Grantville, Pennsylvania. That sentence was imposed by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Sylvia H. Rambo on May 6, 2019, after Rojas was convicted by a jury on multiple counts of causing prescription animal drugs to become misbranded in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), as well as conspiracy to commit misbranding.

According to Acting U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler, between 2002 and 2014, Rojas directed veterinarians to administer drugs to horses at Penn National Racetrack on race day in violation of track rules and state law. Rojas argued on appeal that the District Court failed to properly instruct the jury on the distinction between the terms “administer” and “dispense,” as used in the FDCA, as it pertained to Rojas directing vets to inject animal drugs into her horses on race day. The Court of Appeals disagreed and found that Congress intended the term “dispense” to include situations in which a veterinarian personally administers a drug, and that Rojas caused that unlawful dispensing when she ordered the veterinarians to inject the horses. The Court of Appeals also held that the government presented sufficient evidence at trial that Penn National veterinarians dispensed prohibited drugs when they injected Rojas’s horses within 24 hours of post time at Rojas’s direction, and that Rojas herself also injected the prohibited drugs into her horses within 24 hours of post time, all in violation of the FDCA.

The Court of Appeals also rejected Rojas’ claim that Judge Rambo erred in excluding evidence that the drugs given to the horses were for therapeutic purposes and were not performance enhancing drugs. The Court of Appeals held that Pennsylvania’s horse racing regulations prohibit administering almost all drugs to horses within 24 hours of post time and the regulations do not distinguish between therapeutic and performance-enhancing drugs.

Finally, the Court of Appeals upheld Judge Rambo’s sentencing Rojas for felony, rather than misdemeanor, misbranding violations. The Court of Appeals found that Rojas acted with the requisite intent to defraud or mislead, which is a requirement for a felony misbranding conviction.

The case was investigated by the by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Horse Racing Commission and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Office of Criminal Investigations. The government was represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney William Behe, Assistant Director John Claud of the Justice Department’s Consumer Protection Branch, and Senior Counsel Laura Pawloski of the FDA’s Office of Chief Counsel.

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