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A Times Editorial

Rick Scott's cynical smears

Rick Scott is a fine one to preach about accountability. The Republican candidate for governor ran a hospital company that paid record fines for Medicare fraud. Yet Scott and his allies falsely suggest that Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is entirely responsible for shortcomings in the management and performance of the state's investment funds. It's a cynical attempt to silence questions about Scott's role in illegal activities in his hospitals by smearing Sink, and voters should see through it.

Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor, is one of three statewide elected officials on the State Board of Administration that oversees a professional staff managing the state's investment funds. All three — Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Sink — could have held SBA managers more accountable for a drop in value and for skirting financial regulations. But a television ad paid for by the Republican Party of Florida that holds Sink solely responsible is false and misleads voters.

As CEO of Columbia/HCA, Scott was ultimately responsible for a hospital chain that was rotten to the core. Yet he claims he doesn't remember much about what his company did to deserve $1.7 billion in civil and criminal fines. His amnesia is at odds with his reputation as a ruthless, uncompromising executive obsessed with cutting costs and raising profits.

Scott claims he would have stopped wrongdoing if only he had been told. He left the company in 1997, four months after a federal raid publicly revealed a sweeping investigation that resulted in record fines. But Scott's claims conflict with the annual stockholder reports he signed for years. As the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported earlier this month, the reports acknowledged at least one Columbia business practice — rewarding physicians for client referrals — could run afoul of federal regulators. They said "current arrangements with physicians … may be subject to enforcement action." Yet Scott told the reporters he didn't recall the documents and dismissed the language as "boilerplate."

Columbia/HCA eventually entered guilty pleas to 14 felony charges involving 10 kinds of fraud. Besides the illegal doctor kickbacks, the Medicare fraud included false coding of patients' illnesses to increase reimbursements, charges for tests never requested by doctors, and other cost-shifting techniques to ensure taxpayers subsidized this private business that earned Scott millions.

After the federal investigation became public, Scott was scheduled to be interviewed by investigators, according to media reports. He never was. And the Times/Herald unearthed a 2000 deposition he gave in an unrelated civil lawsuit. Scott invoked his right to the Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination a total of 75 times. That right can only be legally applied when the witness suspects he is the target of a criminal investigation.

Former employees, including those who helped the federal government build its case, contend Scott had to have been aware the company was operating outside the law. They said it was common practice for the company to keep significant reserves — perhaps as much as $1 billion — in case Medicare complained. Or has Scott forgotten?

Sink has to defend her record in public office, but she is not the CEO for the state's investment funds. Scott was the CEO for the for-profit hospital chain he spent a decade building into the nation's largest. Running false television ads that tar Sink will not remove the large stain on Scott's record, and he has yet to come clean.

Rick Scott's cynical smears 09/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 5:53pm]
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