ORLANDO — The campaign to become Florida's next governor turned into a war of words this week over who had a role in shady business practices that led to fraud charges at the former companies of Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Rick Scott.
Sink unleashed a new round of attacks Tuesday against Scott, marshaling police, sheriffs and state attorneys in two TV ads. One questioned Scott's decision to plead the Fifth Amendment 75 times in a lawsuit involving one of his companies. The other, featuring the law enforcement officials, accuses him of running attack ads that are "totally false" — a claim that disregards portions of Scott's ads that are accurate.
Scott's campaign fired back, announcing Tuesday that it will release two ads attacking Sink. One claims that as president of NationsBank Florida she was responsible for questionable sales practices conducted by a separate securities company that reported to NationsBank Corp.
The other ad echoes one from Scott's Republican allies that singles out Sink for blame over state pension fund losses — she, along with Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum, was one of three members of the board administering the trust fund.
One of Sink's ads features two sheriffs, a Republican and a Democrat, a state attorney from each party and police detectives who attempt to highlight the idea that Scott knew, or should have known, about the Medicare fraud in his hospital chain.
Although his company, Columbia/HCA Corp. paid a $1.7 billion federal fine, Scott left before the fraud charges were filed and was never charged with fraud.
"Scott claims he didn't know the company he led was systematically defrauding Medicare," said William Cervone, a state attorney from Alachua County and a Republican. "Ripping off seniors and taxpayers," adds Paul Southwick, a Tampa police sergeant and a Democrat.
In another ad, Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder, a Republican, stands in a courtroom and says: ''Take it from law enforcement: Rick Scott's ads attacking Alex Sink are totally false."
But independent fact checkers, including PolitiFact Florida, have found that while many elements of Scott's ads are misleading, they are not "totally" false.
In Scott's latest attack ad, the campaign accuses Sink of failing to know about shady investments by the securities subsidiary, NationsBank Securities. That company was accused of deceptive sales practices and settled a class action suit by paying investors $11.5 million and paying a $6.75 million civil fine in 2001. But documents show that NationsBank Florida and Sink were not a party to the suit; the securities subdivision was a separate entity.
Sink said Tuesday that federal laws barred her as a bank executive from having any authority over the securities operations.
The securities division had no responsibility to the banking division.
She said Scott is really desperate to suggest that she had any authority over these employees or the subsequent lawsuit.