EXCLUSIVE: Health care pay probe hits top Interior official

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Mr. Strickland reported getting $2.7 million in salary and bonus money from UnitedHealth in a financial disclosure form filed March 13 with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. He also listed stock awards, but said the value of those awards was not readily ascertainable.

He also noted that he would retain his “stock appreciation rights,” but said he would not receive any additional rights from the company after his resignation. While he would retain his UnitedHealth 401(k) account, neither he nor the company would make any further contributions, he said.

Both UnitedHealth and the Interior Department said Mr. Strickland has no plans or agreements to return to the company whenever he leaves the government.

Mr. Strickland’s nomination sailed through the Senate by a vote of 89-2. He serves as the assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, as well as chief of staff for the entire Interior Department.

His ties to UnitedHealth never arose during his nomination except for a passing reference by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, who noted that he “worked in Minnesota so he knows our state well.” UnitedHealth is based in Minneapolis and is one of the state’s largest employers.

Mr. Strickland, who served as U.S. attorney in Colorado during the Clinton administration, testified to the Senate that he was asked to join the Interior Department in part because of his experience as a federal prosecutor. The Interior Department came under sharp criticism from Congress last year after an ethics scandal involving its Minerals Management Service.

Mr. Strickland told senators that he and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited the Minerals Management Service “to meet with every employee there and address these ethics and integrity issues.”

“We sent a message throughout the department that the rule of law will apply and that policy decisions will be based on science and on the appropriate considerations and not politics or special interests,” he said.

Mr. Strickland ran twice for a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado, losing in 1996 and 2002 to Wayne Allard, the Republican incumbent. He worked at the Hogan & Hartson law firm before taking the job at UnitedHealth in April 2007.

The company’s stock price dropped from about $49 per share when he arrived to $28 when he left, but he was credited with helping see the company respond to “legal and regulatory challenges,” the company said in its SEC filings.

The company’s compensation committee also credited him with rebuilding the legal department and a pro bono program across UnitedHealth.

Days before the announcement that Mr. Strickland was leaving the company, New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo disclosed a $50 million settlement with UnitedHealth to resolve an investigation into the company’s billing practices.

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