It takes a certain amount of gall to run a company that systematically ripped off the U.S. government, the taxpayers and the sick and weak — and then to run for governor of Florida.
On the other hand, if you have money, you can afford a lot of gall. Also television commercials.
Rick Scott, the former hospital corporation chief turned politician, has spent $16 million so far to become the Republican nominee for governor in Florida — and he's winning or close to it.
If you have a television, you've seen his ads. The man looks good, don't you think? I do. He comes across as decisive and strong.
Also the tough-bald-guy thing helps.
His actual message? Who cares? Let's get to work! He likes Arizona's immigration law. He doesn't like politics as usual. (Who does?)
He'll run government like a business — although, one hopes, not the same business that he ran.
Oh, yeah. His business.
Not that such pesky little details matter, but …
Scott was CEO of the giant hospital chain Columbia/HCA until 1997, when he "parted ways" with the company during a massive federal investigation. He got $17 million.
That investigation resulted in Columbia/HCA agreeing to pay $1.7 billion (that's b-billion) to settle allegations that it had defrauded Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health programs through schemes dating back to the late 1980s. The company also agreed to plead guilty to 14 corporate felonies.
The allegations included:
• Systematic overstatements of charges by some of the company's hospitals.
• Fraud in laboratory billings.
• The practice of "upcoding" patient diagnoses to get a bigger reimbursement.
• Improper reimbursements for expenses that actually were marketing and advertising costs.
• Overbilling or incorrect billing for home health care visits.
Scott himself was never charged with a crime.
And yet, Scott started the "Columbia" half of the outfit.
He ran the joint. He brags about how well he ran it.
So, did he know?
And if he didn't — how could he have not? Was there a secret Medicare Fraud Department that was kept from him?
"What matters is that the company made mistakes," Scott says in one of his commercials. "And as CEO I take responsibility and learn from it."
But — what mistakes?
And what did he learn?
On a website (www.truthaboutrickscott.com) Scott again weakly "accepts responsibility" — then spends the rest of the time trying to evade and minimize it.
The translation is: Hey, what's a little Medicare fraud? Everybody did it; we weren't the only company targeted. My executives who got convicted won their appeals. The feds were being unreasonable in the first place. And I wasn't even in favor of the company settling the case.
Poor Bill McCollum!
McCollum, the state's Republican attorney general, finally looked like he might get the top job. It was finally his turn to win a marquee statewide race, now that all the Jebs and Charlies and even the Mels were out of the way.
But he is not Mr. Excitement. Indeed he is the very embodiment of Politics as Usual. He is the perfect target for a Rick Scott-style campaign. Scott even uses a pinched, prissy sound bite from McCollum in his commercials -— to deadly effect. I laugh every time I hear it.
Neither is McCollum the only one with a charisma crisis. The Florida political establishment has labored mightily in the 2010 cycle to produce a crop of ho-hum candidates who are sitting ducks for anti-establishment challengers.
Kendrick Meek, the U.S. representative from Miami, finds himself challenged by rich-guy Democrat Jeff Greene in the U.S. Senate race.
Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor, is as uninspiring as McCollum. She is lucky not to have a Scott in her own party primary. At this rate she might well end up facing Scott in November anyway — and unless she gets better campaign stuff, it will not go well for her.
At least Gov. Charlie Crist, now running as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate, is interesting: You never know what he'll do or say next. Also interesting is Marco Rubio, the Republican front-runner for the Senate.
Which is the more interesting matchup vs. Sink in November — McCollum or Scott? Is the U.S. Senate race more interesting with Greene in there against Crist and Rubio, or with Meek?
Interesting, I said. That's the ticket this year. But if you think elections should be decided on the merits, or that something like corporate fraud against the taxpayers might disqualify a fellow from public office — well, you might end up disappointed.