- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2010

Florida’s two gubernatorial candidates launched dueling media attacks Monday designed to portray the other as scandal-prone and untrustworthy in a race most pollsters say is too close to call.

Democrat Alex Sink unveiled an unusually long two-minute television ad hammering her Republican opponent, Rick Scott, for his role in one of the nation’s largest medical fraud scandals in history.

Mr. Scott fired back later in the day with a new website dedicated to “Sink scandals,” which he said exposes his opponent’s hypocrisy.

The competing personal attacks came as a new poll showed the candidates in a virtual dead heat with the election only three weeks away. Mrs. Sink is the state’s chief financial officer and Mr. Scott is a political newcomer and former top health care executive.

The Sink ad, done in documentary style and dubbed the “Fraud Files,” highlights Mr. Scott’s troubled tenure as the former head of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain. The multimillionaire Republican candidate was ousted as head of the medical group in 1997 after the federal government accused the chain of filing Medicaid and Medicare claims for services it didn’t perform.

The company eventually reached a plea agreement that totaled $1.7 billion - the largest recovery ever reached by the U.S. government in a health care fraud investigation.

The ad also attacks Mr. Scott over his business dealings with Solantic, a chain of health care clinics he co-founded that the state of Florida is investigating for possible overbilling of Medicare, a claim Mr. Scott denies.

The ad will begin airing Wednesday evening in the Tampa market, a politically crucial battleground area.

Mr. Scott in turn launched www.SinkScandals.com, which his campaign said is designed to counter the Democrat’s claim that in her career as banker and state official she had not been touched by scandal.

The Republican claimed that Mrs. Sink abused her position as Florida’s chief financial office by granting permission for convicted felons to sell insurance in Florida. The action, though legal, exploited a loophole in state and federal laws designed to keep felons out of the financial service industries, he said.

The Scott website also attempts to link Mrs. Sink with a fraud scandal involving her former company, NationsBank. The bank, which later became Bank of America, was investigated and fined millions of dollars by the Securities and Exchange Commission for “deceptive and misleading” sales tactics that defrauded thousands of investors.

Mrs. Sink, a former president of Florida operations for the giant bank, has denied any involvement in the matter.

A Rasmussen Reports survey of likely voters released Monday found Mr. Scott with 50 percent support, ahead of Mrs. Sink at 47 percent. The survey, which has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, reflects the strongest showing to date for both candidates in a Rasmussen poll, as the number of undecided voters and those backing another candidate has declined.

Mr. Scott held a 5 percentage point lead in a Rasmussen survey taken about a week earlier. But a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey taken last week showed the Democrat with a 4 percentage point lead.