By Mike Papantonio and Farron Cousins
During his tenure as president of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean did his best to implement a fifty-state strategy to help Democrats build a strong political base in local elections throughout the country.
The idea was that every political race—from school superintendent to President—was important to the party’s future. Many establishment Democrats balked at the idea of wasting their time trying to help small-time politicians win elections when there were larger, more important contests to focus on. Eventually, the party’s fifty-state infrastructure fell apart, but not until after the successful 2008 Presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
Where old, worn-out establishment Democrats blew it again, conservatives recognized an opportunity. The Koch brothers in particular were intrigued by Dean’s ideas, and they slowly began to funnel money, talking points, and their candidates du jour into elections all over the country. Some were hyper-local, such as school board members in rural Colorado or a mayoral race in a small town in Minnesota.
These small-fry victories sent ripples of pro-business, anti-union, anti-regulation sentiment throughout the nation. But the Koch fifty-state strategy still needed to reel in a few big fish, so they did what all good anglers do when they want to catch a whopper. They went to Florida.
The state of Florida is an integral part of the electoral puzzle. It is nearly impossible for a Presidential candidate to win the White House without Florida’s twenty-nine electoral votes, and only once in the last forty years has the state not gone to the winner of the Presidential election.
Beyond Presidential politics, the state had been largely ignored by Democratic organizers and the media, allowing the Koch brothers and the Tea Party to methodically seize control of one of the most important electoral blocs in the country. They accomplished this feat to a large degree by way of Republican Governor Rick Scott.
Scott was their perfect candidate: He was a self-made millionaire, a champion of capitalism, and his Ayn Randian philosophy towards government and private industry played well within the Florida Tea Party circles. It was as if Rick Scott was a long-lost relative of the Kochs, raised by Gordon Gekko and Karl Rove. And the best thing about Rick Scott? He wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else’s money to win an election. He was loaded.
Before he had dreams of being one of the least-respected governors in Florida history, Scott was running what turned out to be one of the more corrupt health care organizations of his day. In the late 1980s, he co-founded a health care company called Columbia Hospital Corporation, which later merged with the Hospital Corporation of America to become Columbia/HCA. Scott served as the chief executive of this corporation for nearly eight years before the bottom fell out. In 1997, policing authorities were alerted to the fact that Columbia had been routinely overbilling Medicare, Medicaid, and countless other agencies for services performed by his corporation, and sometimes, for services that weren’t performed at all.
A Justice Department report released in 2000 showed that the fraud was rampant within the corporation that Scott was running. Politifact reported that the DOJ concluded:
“Columbia billed Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal programs for tests that were not necessary or had not been ordered by physicians;
“The company attached false diagnosis codes to patient records to increase reimbursement to the hospitals;
“The company illegally claimed non-reimburseable marketing and advertising costs as community education;
“Columbia billed the government for home health care visits for patients who did not qualify to receive them.”
In the end, it was determined that Scott’s health care company had committed $1.7 billion worth of fraud against the government. At that time, it was the single largest case of Medicare fraud in the history of this country. Scott claimed that he had absolutely no knowledge of the fraud that was occurring at all levels of the company. Even with those denials, he still resigned as soon as the FBI, IRS, and DOJ came knocking at the door of his Texas headquarters in 1997.
The investigative depositions that followed made the billion-dollar fraud that took place on Scott’s watch as CEO of Columbia/HCA a political nightmare.
While being deposed, Rick Scott pled the Fifth Amendment a staggering seventy-five times to avoid implicating himself in the criminal activity that the government had uncovered. Under the law, the Tea Party governor had the right not to answer seventy-five different fraud-related questions that potentially could have tied him to a billion-dollar criminal enterprise.
In the end, Columbia/HCA paid hundreds of millions in fines. Scott took his millions and went on to have a lucrative career as a venture capitalist for a few years before diving head first into politics.
Remarkably, during his campaign, Scott was able to use his company’s criminal history to his advantage. He went so far as to post the story on his campaign website—complete with the admission that the company had, in fact, stolen $1.7 billion from American taxpayers. He claimed that he was unaware that any kind of crime was taking place at Columbia/HCA. He explained that, against the will of his board of directors at HCA, he wanted to fight the charges rather than settle with the government. It was his early embrace of this well-massaged history that allowed him to frame the debate on his own terms.
The half-hearted attempts by his incredibly weak Democratic challenger in 2010, Alex Sink, to make it a campaign issue spoke volumes about the dysfunction of Florida’s Democratic strategists.
Sink spent a paltry $17 million on her campaign. From the very start of the race, she came across like a shrinking violet and struggled to rally or inspire voters.
Of course, it’s easy to control messaging during a campaign when you are working with unlimited personal funds.
In addition to having support from massive corporations that gave the governor more than $67 million, Rick Scott had a personal net worth of more than $200 million at the start of his 2010 campaign. He spent $73 million of that personal fortune to buy the governor’s seat.
From the moment he stepped into the governor’s office in Tallahassee, Scott began delivering for his rightwing, corporate backers.
Like his fellow Republican governors who were working for the same set of interests in other states, his first item of business was to dismantle the teachers’ unions and weaken that voting bloc. He implemented archaic policies that obliterated the state’s tenure program for teachers and linked all future pay raises to student performance, which is an inaccurate and unfair measure. To further damage the teachers’ unions and the Florida public school system, Scott handed state money over to for-profit schools, siphoning the funds out of regular public schools. In his first year in office, Scott cut Florida’s funding of public education by $1.3 billion.
What about jobs? Scott came into office promising hundreds of thousands of new jobs for the state of Florida, which was still reeling from the economic collapse of 2008. Thanks to Scott’s rejection of aid from the federal government, his anti-public-employee stance, and his “private sector can do it better” mentality, the state of Florida has actually lost more than 300,000 jobs since he was sworn in.
Then there is the lingering issue of Scott’s repeated, serious conflicts of interest. Shortly before taking office, Scott systematically moved tens of millions of dollars in shares of corporations from his name into his wife’s name. This helped him avoid the appearance of conflict. Still, any gains that flow to his wife also flow into his pocket. And as soon as the dust settled from those hugely publicized transfers, Scott began implementing policies that benefited the companies he and his wife owned stakes in.
For example, his idea to force state employees and welfare recipients to take drug tests was a gift to Solantic, Inc., a chain of urgent-care clinics in which the Scott family holds a $63 million share. Taxpayers lost money, but Scott made a fortune. It was reminiscent of what happened at HCA.
Scott’s most important role in the rightwing fifty-state game plan was to try to hand over the state of Florida to Republicans in the 2012 Presidential election.
In 2011, after being in office for only a few months, Scott attended the annual secret California meeting of the Kochs at a resort in Palm Springs. At this meeting, he met the billionaire power brokers who were funding the Tea Party movement and Republican candidates. What they discussed remains largely unknown.
But we do know that upon his return to Florida, Scott began his infamous voter purge. The Kochs kicked in $100,000 for the effort. They funneled their money through Protect Your Vote, a Florida-based conservative group aimed at drumming up public resentment towards the virtually nonexistent phenomenon of in-person “voter fraud.” Rampant “voter fraud” was a common talking point, even though the best available evidence found that during the period from the years 2000 to 2010, there were only thirteen instances of in-person voting fraud across the country. In the state of Florida, the average number of voter fraud investigations—not convictions or arrests, just investigations into potentially illegal voting—is around ten per year.
Scott immediately went to work telling Florida citizens that voter fraud was compromising the integrity of our elections, and that we had felons, undocumented workers, and even dead people casting votes in the state! When pressed on the issue during interviews, Scott could not cite a single instance of voter fraud in Florida in recent years.
Nevertheless, Scott pushed forward with a plan that would have purged the voting rolls of more than 182,000 eligible Florida voters. Most of those voters were black, young, or female. Almost all of them were Democrats. Had it not been for a statewide revolt by Scott’s Supervisors of Elections, his purge would have been more than enough to give the state to Mitt Romney. Romney lost the state to President Obama by only 73,000 votes.
The Florida Supervisors of Elections were aided in their effort to stop Rick Scott’s voter purge by the progressive media. High-profile stories by Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, Thom Hartmann, and others helped to shine a national spotlight on Scott’s efforts, which in turn helped create real power behind the Supervisors of Elections’ threats.
Florida became a test case for the Koch-funded voter purge strategy. If Scott had been successful, the Kochs would have seen it was a worthwhile investment to finance similar campaigns in states all over the country. Instead, due to the power of progressive media and public backlash, at least for a short time, they were stopped in their tracks.
Scott’s pathetic record helped him reach the lowest approval rating of any governor in the United States. In late 2013, it fell to 26 percent. His numbers have improved only slightly in recent months, with Public Policy Polling currently showing the Tea Party governor with a 39 percent approval rating. Disapprovals remain high—at 48 percent.
You would think that his abysmal record combined with his unpopularity would make this year’s gubernatorial election a lock for likely Democratic nominee (and former Republican governor) Charlie Crist. But this is Florida, the state where voters have the memory span of a gnat. Currently, Crist and Scott are tied in the neighborhood of 42 percent apiece among likely voters. Crist himself is suffering from high unfavorable ratings, which equal Scott’s.
However, 19 percent of people who describe themselves as “very liberal” are undecided, meaning they create a possibility of a break for Crist at the eleventh hour.
Mike Papantonio is the host of the syndicated radio and TV show Ring of Fire, and he’s a senior partner of the law firm Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor. Farron Cousins is the executive editor of The Trial Lawyer magazine and is the producer of “Ring of Fire.”