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Howard Troxler: What's a few potentially illegal campaign contributions, after all?

Last week, what could have been a bigger scandal in Florida got swept under the rug.

Here's the gist:

WellCare Health Plans, the mammoth health-care company based in Tampa, made potentially illegal contributions to a big percentage of our Legislature between 2005 and 2007, including several Tampa Bay area lawmakers.

Technically, what happened Wednesday was one of those carefully crafted "settlements" between WellCare and an outfit called the Florida Elections Commission.

WellCare got to say that it was not making any "acknowledgement of guilt" that could be used against it.

And although the Elections Commission said there was probable cause to proceed, it agreed to settle.

WellCare agreed to pay a $120,000 penalty. As the company took in $6.5 billion last year, that's not as much a penalty as it is a tip.

The 129 suspect contributions, totaling $64,500, were just a fraction of the money WellCare spent on politics — $1 million to $2.4 million, according to estimates — as it sought a bigger share of the state's Medicaid business.

WellCare used its various subsidiaries to spread around campaign money improperly, the commission found — suspicious because those companies had no revenue of their own. The commission also found 13 examples of contributions over legal limits.

Yet the commission went out of its way to say there was no "intentional" violation of the law.

This settlement is only the most recent WellCare news.

This past May, nearly 18 months after investigators raided its offices, WellCare made a deal to pay authorities $80 million. The company had funneled money to a subsidiary that was supposed to be refunded to the state.

Also in May, the company agreed to pay a $10 million civil penalty plus interest to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission case.

The company stresses that the people who did the bad things are gone, that it has cooperated in all the investigations, and that it is committed to honest practices.

No one is calling for a review of WellCare's contracts with the state.

The recipients of WellCare's money, including the Legislature's top brass, are not accused of anything.

The settlement lists the suspect contributions. Here are Tampa Bay area recipients:

State Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Dunedin; former Rep. Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater; former House candidate Angelo Cappelli, R-St. Petersburg; Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa; then-Rep. (now Sen.) Charles Dean, R-Inverness; Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; former Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg; Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater; Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island; former Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon; Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland; former Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa; Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs; Hillsborough County Commissioners Jim Norman and Mark Sharpe; Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa; Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill; Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon; former Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa; Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Again: These recipients are not accused of doing anything illegal, or knowing about it. As to why it is legal for a company doing big business with the state, and looking for more, to shower the Legislature with money — well, ask the Legislature.

Howard Troxler: What's a few potentially illegal campaign contributions, after all? 08/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 1:59pm]
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