Days after U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis aired a campaign advertisement taking credit for a bill targeting opioids that he did not craft, Democratic challenger Chris Hunter responded with a video saying the claim was a way to “cover up” his actions during the opioid crisis.
“He’s trying to cover up what he did,” Hunter’s 60-second campaign video released Friday states. “Bilirakis took over $40,000 from the same drug companies that caused the opioid crisis. Then sponsored their bill that made it harder for the (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) to stop suspicious shipments of opioids, helping his donors profit from pushing more pills while more Floridians died.” The 30-second advertisement Bilirakis ran on TV and online Monday flashes text about a “Bilirakis INTERDICT Act” as Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco says Bilirakis is “giving us the tools to do our job and get traffickers off the street.”
The INTERDICT Act, signed by President Donald Trump in January, provides funding and equipment to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for detecting imported fentanyl. Although Bilirakis was neither a sponsor nor one of 18 co-sponsors, the ad prominently displays the words “Bilirakis INTERDICT Act,” the Tampa Bay Times first reported Wednesday.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Bilirakis takes credit for law he did not craft in new ad touting fight on opioids
In response to the Times, Bilirakis campaign spokesman Towson Fraser on Wednesday stated it was worded that way because Bilirakis “voted for the act, it went through his committee, he participated in hearings about the need for it, and worked to support its passage.”
However the act only went through the Homeland Security Committee, which Bilirakis does not serve on. Fraser later told the Times he “was wrong about the committee.”
In 2016, Bilirakis was one of six co-sponsors of a bill that made it harder for the DEA to intercept suspicious shipments of opioids to unscrupulous doctors and pharmacies. Since the pharmaceutical industry began lobbying for the change in 2014, Bilirakis accepted $40,000 from the same companies Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi would later assert “caused the opioid epidemic.”
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The Washington Post and 60 Minutes published a sweeping investigation in 2017 detailing how intense lobbying from the drug industry pushed the bill through Congress despite opposition from a top DEA official. In 2016, the year the law Bilirakis co-sponsored passed, there were 5,725 opioid related deaths in Florida, a 35 percent increase from the year before.
On Sept. 5, two months before the Nov. 6 election where he’s running for a seventh term in the 12th Congressional District, Bilirakis filed a bill to change the threshold the DEA would have to meet to halt drug shipments.
“What’s worse — pocketing campaign money from the opioid industry to prevent DEA from doing its job, falsely claiming responsibility for work he did not do, or misleading voters about it all?” Hunter stated in a news release.
In an email to supporters Friday, Bilirakis attacked the reporting of the ad by the Times as "fake news." In a statement to the Times about Hunter's video, Fraser said Bilirakis "has aggressively worked to address the opioid epidemic."
"Congressman Bilirakis is proud of his record of fighting opioid abuse, and focusing on the issues important to the people of Congressional District 12, including cutting taxes, reducing government bureaucracy, securing our border and strengthening our military," Fraser said.