Since his conviction in November on a federal conspiracy charge for his involvement in a multimillion dollar drug scheme led by a Riverhead physician assistant, former Southampton Town councilman Brad Bender has gotten divorced from his husband of 12 years, sold his home and his car and sold or given away most of his personal possessions. He’s packed up what remains and placed it in a storage facility, which he’s paid the rent on in advance.
He’s paid off his bills and done everything necessary to prepare for a two-year absence from society.
On Thursday, Bender will surrender himself at the Lewisburg Federal Prison Camp in central Pennsylvania, where he will begin to serve out a two-year sentence. The facility is a minimum-security satellite camp adjoining the maximum-security Lewisburg federal penitentiary.
Asked if he’s scared of what lies ahead, Bender hesitated, scratching the stubble of growth on his chin. “Sure, I’m scared,” he says. “Aren’t we all scared little kids inside? Yeah. I’ve been a scared little boy my whole life.”
But Bender, 55, says he’s a better man today because of his arrest, thanks to the drug treatment he’s had since entering a guilty plea in November. His treatment, which includes a 12-step program and one-on-one counseling, has kept him clean for 10 months after a lifetime of battling the demons of addiction. He says he’s made a commitment to treatment for the rest of his life.
The former councilman sat down for an interview with RiverheadLOCAL Saturday morning.
“First,” Bender said, “I want to say I’m sorry. I know I disappointed a lot of people and made a lot of people angry. I’m sorry for the things I’ve done and I want people to know that.”
He became addicted to Vicodin and oxycodone, the pain medication he was taking for a back injury, starting about five years ago, he said. A construction contractor, he’d suffered three herniated disks and was living in constant, intense pain.
“I’d come home from work and eat half a bottle of ibuprofen and lay on my bed and cry,” he said.
“It’s a snowball. It gets bigger and bigger as it comes down the hill and you have to take more and more for it to work.” After surgery, the pain lessened but was still constant — “a four or a five instead of a 10 or a 12 on the pain scale of one to 10,” he said. “But the bigger pain was now the pain of withdrawal.”
“I was a functional addict,” he said. “I paid my bills. I did everything I was supposed to do. I showed up for work and did everything that was associated with that. Did I go home and get wasted at night? No. But I kept myself well-medicated. Most people didn’t know I was having a problem,” he said.
“We want to turn every drug addict into some lying, cheating dirtbag, but that’s untrue,” Bender said. “There are some people like that, sure – but there are also drug addicts who are doctors and lawyers and dentists and a lot of other kinds of people. You don’t see it and you know nothing about it and they may desperately need help themselves,” he said.
That’s the main reason Bender said he felt compelled to speak out before going away.
“Firsthand, I know that I’ve been sitting next to someone you care about on a regular basis. I know for a fact that through my recovery and my participation in the program, I’ve probably come in contact with your brother, your sister, your mother, your father your aunt, your uncle, your son, your daughter or someone in your family,” he said. “It’s not ‘those other people’ — it’s your family. Or maybe it’s even you.”
He wants people who are struggling with their own addictions to know that help is available — free and nearby.
“By speaking out I want people to know about the amount of services that are here, right now, on the ground for people who are hurting,” Bender said. “I didn’t know this and I want them to know it. They are here.”
Twelve-step programs are bound by rules against self-promotion — either as an organization or by individual members. Bender can’t even disclose what program he’s been in. Government doesn’t do a good job of letting people know what’s out there, either, he said.
People suffer in silence, as he did. Until it gets more out of control and something happens. In his case, that “something” came in the form of Drug Enforcement Agency officers at the door of his Northampton home.
“I’m remorseful,” Bender said Saturday. “I apologize to everyone that supported me and voted for me. But I can’t undo it. If you want to hate me for it, go ahead. That’s OK. That’s up to you,” he said.
The former councilman, whose life came crashing down around him with that knock on his door last fall, said he’s OK with where he’s at today.
“Since my arrest, I’ve had 10 months of clean time, 10 months of working with a professional therapist, 10 months of working in a 12-step program. And I found out very quickly who my friends really were,” he said.
“With the exception of a few employees that work in Town Hall — not one legislator, not one elected official, not one person called me. So, you know, I instantly became, you know, I guess… a pariah, or something like that,” he said.
“My addiction… literally wiped out all the years of hard work I did — from the plantings and the signs at the Flanders-Riverside corners, the work I did with Friends of the Big Duck, the work I did with FRNCA, the work I’ve done with the school, the programs I started…to the Riverside redevelopment that I worked on right up to the end — right up to two weeks before they voted on the new zoning code — and they wouldn’t let me vote on it,” he said.
“So, you know, as soon as you have a problem, everybody runs for the hills and everything you did beforehand is now forgotten,” he said.
Bender did not want to discuss on the record the details of the activity that led to his arrest, but he does want people to know he was not selling drugs on the street.
“The doctor and a third-party manipulated me inside my addiction to gain access to my medication,” he said.
The third-party was someone Bender knew from the gym where he’s been working out regularly for many years. That person, who has not been charged by the U.S. Attorney, was a friend of Riverhead physician assistant Michael Troyan, who federal prosecutors said was the ringleader in a $1.8 million oxycodone distribution scheme from 2011 to 2015.
Troyan in June pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute oxycodone — the same charge Bender pleaded guilty to last November. He is due in court for sentencing Sept. 30.
“I took everything like a man,” Bender said. “I took ownership of everything that I did. I’m paying the price for what I did and I’m not going to complain about it,” he said.
Since selling his house, Bender has been living in a group home for recovering addicts in Riverhead, operated by Mainstream House. It’s been a good place for him, he said. “I have curfew and drug testing. There’s a lot of support.” He has already made arrangements to return to a Mainstream House facility upon his release from prison, to help him transition back into the outside world. His sentence requires him to have three years of post-release supervision by probation officers as well.
He said he has felt gratified being able to help other addicts in recovery and thinks that he’d like to continue that when he’s released.
“I like helping people. That’s why I ran for office,” he said. “I hope I can help others now by speaking out and letting them know there is help available and they’re not alone.”
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