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Politics

Will he go hard after frauds?

That question has become an issue for Bill McCollum in his attorney general run .

By Aaron Sharockman
Published November 3, 2006


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In Congress, Bill McCollum filed a bill that would have protected pharmaceutical companies accused of Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

One company under investigation later tapped McCollum as its lobbyist, and paid his firm $60,000.

Now McCollum is running for attorney general, where he will be asked to prosecute fraud cases under the very laws he tried to change in Congress, against companies like the one he used to work for.

McCollum, a former 10-term congressman from the Orlando area, says he wouldn't hesitate to sue his old employer, AstraZeneca, or others if they broke the law.

But consumer advocates say McCollum's history with the pharmaceutical industry is troubling.

In 2005 alone, Florida's attorney general collected more than $76-million in fraud settlements, mostly by opting into nationwide suits.

"Are you going to get that with McCollum? I don't know," said Patrick Burns, of the Washington, D.C., False Claims Act Legal Center. "Past isn't prologue, but it is the way we bet at the track."

McCollum's 1998 legislation would have gutted some of the nation's toughest antifraud laws to the benefit of the health care industry, say consumer advocates and a Republican U.S. senator. Enacted to prevent defense contractors from bilking the Union Army in 1863, the federal False Claims Act has returned $19-billion to the government in the last 20 years, and more than $3-billion in 2005 alone, its proponents say.

McCollum's bill would have raised the threshold when the law is applied to the health care industry, increased the burden of proof for prosecutors and created "safe harbors" for companies with mitigation plans.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation would have cost the federal government $2.2-billion between 1998 and 2003; states would have lost $60-million to $75-million annually.

McCollum said the bill was written at the behest of an Orlando doctor to protect hospitals from bad bookkeeping and erroneous advice from the federal government. It would not have affected large-scale fraud cases, McCollum said, a notion that riled cynics in his own party when the bill was first proposed.

"Perpetrators of fraud will be celebrating in the streets" if the bill passed, warned Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at the time.

McCollum said his bill, which did not pass, was intended to rein in overzealous prosecutors. The Justice Department ultimately changed protocols, McCollum said, to do just that.

"The bill that I introduced was to protect doctors and hospitals from clerical errors," McCollum said this week. "If somebody files a fraudulent claim, they ought to be prosecuted."

AstraZeneca fit that description, federal prosecutors say.

From 1993 to 1996, the London pharmaceutical company sent thousands of free samples of the prostate cancer drug Zolodex to doctors, knowing they would then fraudulently bill Medicare, Medicaid and other federally funded health care programs.

The company provided doctors free trips, educational grants and business assistance, according to the Justice Department, all to entice them to sell AstraZeneca's drugs, not their competitors'.

The company pleaded guilty in 2003 to a felony charge of health care fraud and agreed to pay $355 million in criminal and civil penalties.

That year, McCollum was hired by AstraZeneca as a Washington lobbyist.

Campbell making issue of situation

McCollum arranged a meeting between AstraZeneca and U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, related to legislation affecting an oral cancer drug AstraZeneca was hoping to sell, McCollum said Thursday.

That was the extent of the relationship, said McCollum. He lobbied for the company for less than a year, according to required federal filings, and his firm, Baker & Hostetler, was paid $60,000 for the work.

"McCollum is about as straight an arrow as you can find," said William Schweitzer, the managing partner of Baker & Hostetler's Washington office.

Still, McCollum's Democratic opponent, state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, is making McCollum's lobbying work a central issue in the final week of the campaign. He also is launching an Internet-only ad that criticizes McCollum's failed 1998 legislation. A similar attack was launched by the victorious Bill Nelson during McCollum's failed 2000 Senate campaign.

Government health care provider Well Care and its subsidiaries have contributed $75,000 to a political action committee running radio advertisements against Campbell, and pharmaceutical and physician interests have contributed at least $46,000 to McCollum's campaign.

"Being a lobbyist for a large corporation is not the training ground for the attorney general of the state of Florida," said Campbell, a Broward County trial lawyer.

McCollum and his supporters paint Campbell's rhetoric as pure politics.

"It may be politically trendy to paint the entire government relations profession with the same broad negative brush, but it's actually harmful to the political system," said Deanna R. Gelak, the former president of the American League of Lobbyists.

McCollum, who has lobbied for the city of Orlando, Verizon, Citigroup and other companies, said he never accepted favors and is proud of his work. "A guilt by association type of argument is all (Campbell) has," McCollum said. "It's an act of desperation."

McCollum: I'll pursue fraud 'with vigor'

Florida's Medicaid program is the largest single piece in the state budget, totaling about $16-billion this year.

And detecting Medicaid fraud is one of the attorney general's most recognized responsibilities. In 2005, the state attorney general's Medicaid Fraud Control Unit investigated 1,365 cases and referred 43 cases for prosecution.

McCollum said he would continue aggressive prosecutions if elected.

"When it comes to fraud and abuse, the No. 1 concern of the attorney general is to make sure the people of the state of Florida are protected," McCollum said. "I'm not going to hesitate to sue anybody whether they are a pharmaceutical company or otherwise."

Critics like Patrick Burns, whose group opposed McCollum's 1998 bill, are less convinced.

"The people of Florida were not served by Bill McCollum trying to gut the False Claims Act," said Burns. "The people who were served were the liars, cheats and thieves."

[Last modified November 3, 2006, 00:13:03]


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