TALLAHASSEE — Two weeks after insisting he was "not involved in that company," Gov. Rick Scott finalized a deal Wednesday to sell Solantic Inc., the Jacksonville chain of urgent care clinics he founded.
Scott's sale of the company comes as he attempts to distance himself from repeated conflict-of-interest questions about whether the company he started in 2001 — and hoped to develop into a national chain — would benefit from the aggressive health care changes he wants state lawmakers to approve.
The sale to Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe makes the New York investment firm the largest shareholder in the company. In 2007, the firm bought a 30 percent share in Solantic when it committed up to $100 million to the company. Two of the firm's partners, Thomas A. Scully and D. Scott Mackesy, sit on the board of directors.
Scott put the value of his majority share of the company at $62 million last year in the financial disclosure filed as part of his race. Scott agreed to sell his holdings for less than that amount, but neither side would provide the exact figure of the deal, expected to close April 29.
Selling all the shares would free him from political problems related to the company, an ethics expert said.
"This sale obviously takes the question off the table in terms of the conflict," said Kenneth Gross, a Washington, D.C., lawyer.
Scott had appeared to satisfy state law when he transferred his shares of the company a few days before he took office to a fund in his wife's name, the Frances Annette Scott Revocable Trust. But political pressure from Solantic has weighed on Scott since last year, when his Republican primary opponent made the company a campaign issue.
Then-Attorney General Bill McCollum's campaign questioned how a Scott administration would handle Solantic, which is regulated by the state Agency for Health Care Administration and hires doctors that are licensed by the Department of Health. Both agencies are run by the governor's appointees.
In the general election, Democrats alleged that Scott started Conservatives for Patients Rights to fight President Barack Obama's health insurance changes as an attempt to protect Solantic, which serves high numbers of uninsured. If more people were insured, Democrats suggested, Solantic could lose business.
Solantic remained an issue as Scott has pushed an agenda including drug-testing welfare recipients, switching Medicaid patients to private HMOs and shrinking public health clinics.
All of the changes could benefit the chain of 32 walk-in clinics.
Scott said he had considered selling Solantic since winning election in November.
"It's just an issue of how I spend my time," Scott said of his decision to sell. "This is more than a full-time job. I'm not spending my time on any (private) business."
But Scott's public position on the company has evolved in recent weeks.
Asked on March 29 whether he would sell his interest or bar the company from receiving state contracts, Scott said, "As I've told you, I'm not involved in that company."
Six days later, Scott announced the state would not contract with the company.
Then he acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday he was interested in selling.
By selling his shares, it appears that Scott cannot prevent the company from bidding — or winning — state contracts under Florida law, said Brian Burgess, a spokesman in Scott's office.
Solantic CEO Karen Bowling, who started the company with Scott, said, "It was always my belief and understand he would sell his part of it." She said Welsh Carson's purchase "demonstrates their commitment to the company."
Bowling said she would remain as CEO and Charlie Evans would remain as the board's chairman.
Clearwater resident David Plyer had filed an ethics complaint against Scott based on St. Petersburg Times reporting, alleging Scott has used his office to benefit Solantic. But experts said transferring the shares to his wife would have satisfied the state's loose conflict-of-interest laws.
"It seems to me that Florida law doesn't give much guidance to public officials about how to avoid these conflicts," Gross said. "The idea you can simply give the shares to a spouse in a revocable trust doesn't make much sense to me at all."
Michael C. Bender can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.