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Ties to insurers are targeted

As rates rise, no candidate, including Frank Farkas and Kim Berfield, wants to be seen as too close. 

Published August 11, 2006

TAMPA - State Rep. Frank Farkas has been sharply criticized for being too close to the insurance industry, but as a candidate for state Senate he's turning the tables on Republican opponent Kim Berfield.

"You've got greedy companies supporting her, dropping people and showing record profits," Farkas said in an interview this week.

Farkas' criticism comes as frustration over Florida's rising home insurance rates has become one of the top issues of the campaign season.

Farkas and Berfield, who is also a member of the state House, are campaigning for the GOP nomination in state Senate District 16, which includes parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The winner will face Democratic state Rep. Charlie Justice on Nov. 7.

Farkas said big financial contributions from insurance companies are flowing to Berfield, and he expects the industry will finance mailings to voters criticizing him shortly before the Sept. 5 primary.

He also said an insurance industry lobbyist, Rhett O'Doski, has been campaigning for her.

At a TV taping of a debate on Monday, Farkas asked Berfield why she took a trip "to the 2004 inauguration" and said it was "paid for by the principal of an insurance company that does business here in the state with Medicare and Medicaid contracts. Can you explain why you took that trip and what you expected to accomplish, seeing that you just spent two years as insurance committee chairman?"

Berfield did not respond because Farkas got some of the details wrong and she said she was not sure which trip he was talking about.

She later said that although she has worked closely on insurance issues in the Legislature, including serving for two years as House Insurance Committee chairwoman, "there have been several occasions that I have consistently voted against the insurance industry and against their liking."

The "inauguration" Farkas mentioned was actually a fundraiser for President Bush, Berfield said.

Reports filed by Berfield show she received a gift of $5,000 and air fare of $427 to attend the South Florida fundraiser in 2004. But Berfield said the report probably overstates the value of the gift, which she recorded "in an abundance of caution."

Her ticket to the fundraising dinner was a gift of Dr. Akshay Desai of St. Petersburg, a noted Republican contributor and a health maintenance organization founder. She said Desai purchased a table of 10 for $5,000, so her seat was probably worth $500.

She said she has known Desai since before she was elected to the Legislature in 2000, and that they mostly spoke about education issues. Desai could not be reached.

Berfield contrasted her gift with the controversy surrounding Farkas' trip to Toronto with three fellow legislators paid for by a gambling company.

"Compare that to him only disclosing and saying he doesn't understand why people are concerned after he got caught taking a trip," Berfield said. "I think they are two very different scenarios."

A report by the Senate's general counsel concluded Farkas' trip broke no state laws.

Campaign finance records show Berfield has received more than $34,000 from insurance companies in the Senate campaign, and Farkas more than $9,000.

Also, Berfield in 2003 received some sizable contributions to a committee she established to become speaker of the House. Among them: $10,000 from Mutual Benefits Corp. and $5,000 from Wellcare Health Plans.

Berfield said O'Doski campaigned for her but said it's not uncommon for lobbyists to volunteer in local campaigns. She said a lobbyist named Christopher Hansen has campaigned for Farkas. Hansen said he waved signs on a street corner for Farkas for a couple of hours one day when he was in town for something else.

Farkas drew pointed criticism in 2002 when he proposed legislation that would have allowed insurance companies to offer policies that did not require coverage of some mandated procedures such as mammograms and cleft palates. He said at the time the idea was to prompt insurance companies to offer low-cost policies that would grant some health coverage to people who otherwise couldn't afford it.

[Last modified August 11, 2006, 14:44:28]

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