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Columbia judge to attorneys: Get going

The judge in a closely watched case against three Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. executives denied a defense motion to remove himself from the case Friday. And he made it clear that defense attorneys should get ready for trial by spring.

The defense attorneys in the Columbia case had asked U.S. District Judge Lee P. Gagliardi to remove himself from their case because he and the federal prosecutor, Kathleen A. Haley, are being investigated for alleged misconduct on an unrelated case. A private investigator has alleged that the two met outside the courtroom to discuss an embezzlement trial in Fort Myers.

At the end of a half-hour status hearing Friday, Gagliardi quickly rejected the defense motion and cited an appeals court ruling upholding his right to continue his duties while under investigation.

Gagliardi, a visiting judge from Albany, N.Y., wants to get the case moving before he's scheduled to return north in the spring. He spends each winter in Fort Myers.

"I'm not searching out this case to try," said Gagliardi, 79, who was appointed to the federal bench 26 years ago by Richard Nixon. "But my assignment here is through April 30. And anything that's still under way at that date, I will continue on."

Defense attorneys said they would consider an appeal in an attempt to get Gagliardi off the case and have it moved to Tampa. Also, they voiced doubts about whether they would be ready to go to trial before late spring or early summer.

Jay Jarrell, Michael Neeb and Robert Whiteside, three Columbia executives, are charged with overbilling government health insurance programs for services at Columbia Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Port Charlotte. All three have pleaded not guilty.

The government has portrayed the indictment as the first formal charges in an ongoing investigation into giant Columbia, the nation's largest hospital chain. The FBI seized 3.5-million documents from Columbia facilities in mid-July. In court Friday, prosecutor Haley said, "A lot of those documents have no relevance to this case. There are many more areas to this investigation than has been narrowly charged in this case."

Haley said she would be ready for trial Feb. 1 and chided the attorney for Whiteside, Charles Lembcke, for failing to begin his review of the seized documents, which are housed in Tampa.

"The attorneys for Mr. Jarrell and Mr. Neeb have done extensive discovery, but Mr. Lembcke hasn't been at the site one time," Haley told the judge. "He'd better get moving."

Defense attorneys countered that they would not be ready for trial until late spring or early summer. And Lembcke, who has estimated it would take six years to pore through the 3.5-million pages of discovery documents, said he has been reviewing cost reports from Blue Cross/Blue Shield, which acted as Medicare's financial intermediary during the period the three men allegedly prepared false reports.

"While the government said this is going to be a simple case, it has accountants from the financial intermediaries that have been working on this for some time," said Lembcke. "I'm not a trained accountant, and I'm going through these documents carefully with assistance."

Lembcke also said defense efforts are hampered by the ongoing nature of the Columbia investigation.

"The government is collecting more things and expanding the universe every day," said Lembcke. "So I expect we should be getting even more evidence."

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