Lawyer wants Florida Attorney General McCollum disqualified from WellCare whistle-blower settlement

The lawyer for the lead whistle-blower in the U.S. Justice Department's civil lawsuit against WellCare Health Plans Inc. has asked Florida's Supreme Court to disqualify state Attorney General Bill McCollum from signing off on a proposed $137.5 million settlement.

Tampa's Barry Cohen filed the unusual motion — the first of its kind — on behalf of his client, Sean Hellein, a former senior financial analyst at WellCare. Cohen says McCollum failed to investigate more than $400 million in fraud by WellCare against Florida's Medicaid program due to "irreconcilable conflicts of interest."

Cohen hopes to delay Florida's approval of the Justice Department agreement until a new attorney general takes office.

Tampa-based WellCare contributed $2.6 million to the state's Republican Party and Republican candidates from February 2004 through May 2007, making it the largest single private political donor to state Republicans. The company gave $9,000 to McCollum in 2006, but Cohen says the attorney general benefited from nearly $1 million more in WellCare donations funneled through the Republican Party. "It's legalized bribery," Cohen said.

In his petition to Florida's Supreme Court, Cohen also cites McCollum's failure to fight a bill that allowed WellCare to spend less on patient care.

The legislation, which would have dropped the requirement that Medicaid HMOs spend at least 80 percent of their state funding on members' mental health services, passed in 2007 but was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist. If the requirement had been dropped, WellCare could have kept $23 million in excess profit it had hidden from the state.

Responding to Cohen's petition, McCollum spokesman Ryan Wiggins said, "We are awaiting direction from the court."

Cohen is pressing for a higher settlement from WellCare, saying federal prosecutors have failed to thoroughly investigate his client's fraud claims. Hellein began cooperating with federal investigators in 2006, gathering information while wearing microphones and cameras as a WellCare employee.

The proposed settlement is pending before U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. in Tampa.

In late October 2007, the FBI raided WellCare's headquarters on Henderson Road. In the aftermath, the company's top three executives resigned, and WellCare paid $80 million to settle corporate criminal charges. A federal criminal investigation against individuals is continuing; one mid-level executive has pleaded guilty to a fraud charge and is awaiting sentencing.

Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

Lawyer wants Florida Attorney General McCollum disqualified from WellCare whistle-blower settlement 10/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 10:55pm]

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