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A Times Editorial

Candidates have a wealth of shortcomings

It's been entertaining and depressing, this primary election season. Billionaire Jeff Greene spiced up the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate amid reports of his exploitation of the housing collapse and wild parties on his yacht. Millionaire Rick Scott spent tens of millions of his own money on a blizzard of ads in the Republican primary for governor, but he cannot make voters forget his former hospital company paid a record fine for Medicare fraud. Voters head to the polls on Tuesday hungry for change, but frustration should not override sound judgment.

Greene and Scott rocketed from obscurity to contenders by capitalizing on a perfect storm. The economic recession has left Floridians eager for new faces and fearful of the future, and both men claim they know how to create jobs. Their politically established primary opponents are not particularly inspiring. And Greene and Scott are wealthy enough to largely self-finance their campaigns and spend heavily on television ads. But candidates for U.S. Senate and governor must offer more than bank accounts large enough to buy name recognition.

The more Greene and Scott are examined, the less there is to like. The public records are clear for U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary for governor. The private business records of Greene and Scott are not, and what is visible raises questions. Greene made hundreds of millions by betting the housing market would collapse, and he participated in a California real estate deal that features straw buyers, mortgage defaults and a federal investigation. Scott ran the hospital conglomerate Columbia/HCA, which paid a record $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare fraud after he resigned. These are not track records that inspire confidence.

The transparency Floridians expect from government and elected leaders is a foreign concept to these businessmen. Greene refuses to release his federal tax returns. Scott refuses to release a confidential video deposition he gave in a lawsuit involving Solantic, a health care company he founded, just six days before he announced he was running for governor. He also won't talk candidly about Columbia/HCA. Neither man is accustomed to answering hard questions from the media, and they can get irritated quickly when defending themselves. A U.S. senator or governor, unlike many business executives, has to be able to answer to the public for their actions.

What is most disturbing about Greene and Scott is their determination to create their own version of events that are at odds with public documents and other accounts. Greene's explanation of the California condo deal is unpersuasive. His blanket denials about an accident involving his yacht and a damaged reef contradict eyewitness accounts, environmental reports and the Belize government's potential fine. Scott says on his website he would have corrected any problems at Columbia/HCA if he had known about them. But court documents detail systemic fraud, and a former company insider told the Miami Herald he warned Scott of "significant problems'' at least six months before Scott left the company.

The disregard for accuracy by both men runs through their campaign commercials attacking their opponents., the fact-checking website by the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald, has not found one of Greene's ads it reviewed to be true or mostly true. Only four of 11 Scott ads are rated true or mostly true. Those are not batting averages that justify a leap of faith in unfamiliar candidates.

Florida needs vibrant leaders to challenge the status quo in Tallahassee and Washington. But Greene and Scott have not demonstrated they meet the basic standards Floridians expect of public servants. Voters seeking change Tuesday should demand more than a fresh face and a fat wallet.

Candidates have a wealth of shortcomings 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 4:33am]
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