SARASOTA — Gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott was a no-show for a session with Florida newspaper executives Thursday, but Republican rival Bill McCollum took him to task for his controversial leadership of hospital giant Columbia/HCA and his relatively short time as a state resident.
Scott has leapt ahead of McCollum, the state attorney general, in recent polls after spending millions of his own money blanketing the Florida airwaves with his campaign commercials. In some of his most pointed remarks yet about his opponent, McCollum told the town hall session with news executives Thursday that voters will reject Scott as they "peel the onion back" and find out more about his past.
Scott, 57, who has support among the tea party crowd, was forced out as CEO of Columbia/HCA during a Medicare fraud investigation that saw the company eventually pay a record $1.7 billion in fines. Scott said he didn't know about the fraud and always notes that he was never charged with a crime.
McCollum said he doesn't buy it.
"He was in charge," McCollum said. "He either knew about the fraud and knew about the taxpayers being ripped off ...or he was not a competent manager and executive of that company. Do you want somebody like that running the state of Florida?"
Noting that Scott has lived in Florida for only seven years, McCollum, a 65-year-old Florida native and former congressman, said he will test Scott's knowledge of the state in debates.
Scott spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said Thursday the Columbia/HCA investigation came during a time when the federal government was widely cracking down on hospital billing practices. And she noted that McCollum sponsored a bill in Congress in 1998 defending hospitals that got caught up in fraud investigations because of honest billing errors.
McCollum's attack, she said, is "further evidence that he's desperate to hang onto power. He's clearly frustrated that Floridians are rejecting his candidacy."
McCollum, who just two months ago seemed to have a lock on the Republican nomination, now finds himself trailing Scott by double-digits after the blitz of TV ads that slam him for being a "career politician," and a political tide that is turning on establishment candidates. McCollum said he'll make up the ground with $6 million to $7 million in campaign advertising during the two month run up to the Aug. 24 primary. Scott has spent an estimated $15 million just in the two months he's been in the race.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Alex Sink and independent candidate Lawton "Bud" Chiles III, son of the popular former governor, also spoke to attendees of the Florida Press Association/Florida Society of News Editors annual convention.
Chiles is a 57-year-old businessman and lifelong Democrat who jumped in as an independent earlier this month. He said he wanted to give voters a choice outside of the traditional parties, even if he is seen as potentially taking votes away from Sink.
He said he's running on a platform of shifting power away from state government in Tallahassee and giving it to the local communities that are better in touch with their own needs.
Sink, 62, currently the state's elected CFO, said her priorities include making sure Florida businesses that have suffered from the Gulf oil spill are fully compensated, diversifying the state's economy to create jobs and getting more private insurers to do business in Florida. A former bank executive, Sink is lagging in the polls behind both Republican candidates.
Scott's campaign said he didn't appear at the forum because of a scheduling conflict. He filed his paperwork to run for election and then spoke at an event in Tallahassee.