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Columbia execs seek new judge

Three indicted Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. executives have asked Judge Lee Gagliardi to remove himself from their Medicare fraud case because of allegations of wrongdoing about the judge and prosecutor Kathleen Haley.

Gagliardi and Haley are under investigation by a federal grand jury and by the Justice Department to see whether they improperly met to discuss a separate health-care fraud case in which both were involved. Both Gagliardi and Haley have denied the allegations.

In that case, which is pending, three are charged with stealing millions of dollars from Cape Coral Hospital. Private investigators for the defense team have alleged that Haley and Gagliardi met twice outside court last winter and discussed the case.

"Judge Gagliardi must recuse himself, because given the much publicized facts and circumstances discussed above, the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned," defense lawyers said in a motion filed Thursday in in a Fort Myers federal court.

The motion could delay the case against the three Columbia/HCA executives charged with wrongdoing in the massive criminal investigation of the nation's largest hospital chain. It may also help efforts by the defense to get the case moved to U.S. District Court in Tampa. Defense lawyers said in their motion that they are not seeking to disqualify Haley from the case.

The three indicted Columbia/HCA executives, Jay Jarrell, Michael Neeb and Robert Whiteside, are accused of overbilling Medicare for services at Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Port Charlotte. They have pleaded innocent.

The case had been formally assigned to Judge Susan C. Bucklew in Tampa. Yet Gagliardi, who presides in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers during the winter, was scheduled to preside over a hearing in the case Nov. 7, prompting the objections.