TAMPA — Rick Scott's bus tour stumbled Friday as he endured tough questions about the fraud at his former company and appeared to misstep on volatile questions from voters.
The campaign minefield — a mix of media scrutiny and voter intrigue — forced the Republican's gubernatorial campaign to clarify whether Scott thinks President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen and how a student's race affects school performance.
The distractions slowed the candidate's momentum, but only slightly, as he sealed votes with handshakes and won rave reviews from many of hundreds who packed his events.
Scott started his day in Clearwater, where he found an anti-incumbent crowd sipping coffee at Lenny's restaurant.
Standing under one of the diner's colorful ceiling tiles with the slogan "A restaurant is the only place where people are happy when they are fed up," city councilman Paul Gibson told him voters "are just voting for the other guy because they are mad."
Paul and Carol Heister, sitting a few tables away, exemplified the anger. "How are you going to get those clowns out of Tallahassee?" Paul Heister asked as he shook Scott's hand. "I'm a Republican, and I think they are an embarrassment."
Scott said he would run government like a business. "We're going to be in the black; we're going to watch every penny," he said.
The Heisters said they left solid Scott supporters. "I'm so glad you're a businessman and not a politician," she said. "I'm so sick of politicians."
The remark is a dig at Scott's outspent rival Bill McCollum, the Republican attorney general who spent two decades in Congress and has been a consistent name on the ballot.
McCollum has responded with advertising that highlights the Medicare and Medicaid fraud that took place in Scott's hospital chain, Columbia/HCA, which pleaded guilty to 14 felonies and paid $1.7 billion in civil and criminal penalties.
Scott has routinely said he did not know about the fraud and stressed that he was never charged with any crimes, but took responsibility for the actions under his watch.
The Justice Department found that Columbia/HCA committed a variety of frauds on the federal Medicare program, from overbilling for patient care to fraudulently manipulating hospital costs. And some crimes date back to the very first hospital purchases orchestrated by Scott's company in Texas in the late 1980s, court records show.
Scott and his partners started Columbia with the purchase of two hospitals in El Paso, before expanding through Texas and later Florida. According to the Justice Department, Columbia illegally offered financial benefits to El Paso doctors in exchange for their patient referrals, a violation of anti-kickback statutes barring such transactions to prevent financial incentives for unnecessary medical treatment.
As part of its business model, Columbia offered doctors ownership shares in its hospitals. But according to the Justice Department, the number of shares given to doctors depended on how many patient referrals they brought in. In a lawsuit filed in Washington in 2001, government lawyers said Scott knew of this arrangement and even paid money to some doctors as part of the scheme, court records show.
Columbia executives relied on this strategy of paying doctors even after a company lawyer warned it could violate the anti-kickback statute, according to the Justice Department lawsuit.
In 2000, three years after Scott resigned from the company, Columbia/HCA pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of paying illegal kickbacks to doctors in Texas.
A political group affiliated with McCollum, the Florida First Initiative, has put out an advertisement featuring a former health care fraud prosecutor scoffing at Scott's claims of ignorance.
Alec Alexander, a former assistant U.S. attorney, reviewed the records for an unnamed client and later agreed to appear in the ad. "What I think is ridiculous is the mantralike claim about the lack of knowledge," he said in a conference call with reporters Friday, though he noted court documents don't directly describe Scott's involvement.
In an interview with reporters aboard his "Let's Get to Work" bus, Scott addressed specific questions for the first time. Scott attacked Alexander, saying he was in law school when he ran the hospital chain.
Asked if he offered doctors incentives to bring in business, he said "absolutely not." Asked if company lawyer Jerre Frazier warned him about it, Scott said he never met with him.
The bumps in the road for the tour began the night before at the Villages, when someone asked what Scott would do to keep Obama off the Florida ballot in 2012, suggesting he was born outside the country. Scott appeared surprised and said, "I'll have to look into it." A campaign spokeswoman later clarified: "He's not a birther."
In Clearwater, Scott and Sean O'Flannery, a high school government teacher, talked about judging schools on a statewide basis, because what works in one may not in another.
"And also a school's color," Scott said. "If you're 70 percent African-American, you are going to deal with different issues."
McCollum's campaign and Democrats seized on this.
A McCollum spokeswoman said his comments "suggest he believes minority students shouldn't be held" to the same standards as others, an insinuation Scott adamantly rejected.
The impromptu fires distracted from the campaign's message of the day: Scott announced on a Jacksonville radio station he would forgo the $133,000 salary if elected governor.