November 19, 2010

Nutting’s shot at Speakership strong as ever

Presumptive next House Speaker unscathed by past pharmacy flap

By Rebekah Metzler rmetzler@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA — State lawmakers on Thursday expressed bipartisan support for presumptive House Speaker Rep. Bob Nutting, despite revelations that his bankrupt pharmacy failed to repay about $1.2 million in MaineCare overpayments it received over a five-year period ending in 2001.

The issue of the payments arose again when the Oakland Republican was nominated by House Republicans to be their leader late last week. However, Republicans and Democrats alike praised Nutting’s character and said the experience, which Nutting has said resulted from an honest accounting mistake, would serve to inform his role as a legislative leader.

The House will formally elect its new Speaker after newly elected representatives are sworn in Dec. 1.

“He was not unwilling to settle. He was unable to settle, and I think there’s a difference between unwilling and unable,” said Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, who recently was elected assistant majority leader, the No. 3 House leadership position. “Once he was made aware of the changes that were being imposed on him by the group who were working for (the Department of Health and Human Services), he agreed to comply and attempted to negotiate a payment schedule.”

Nutting said Wednesday his pharmacy, True’s, was forced to file for bankruptcy because the state insisted he pay back about $1.6 million in overpaid MaineCare funds more quickly than he was able. In the end, only about $433,000 was repaid to the state and federal governments, according to state records.

Cushing said Nutting has been re-elected by his constituents several times since the well-publicized incident and has proven himself as a lawmaker.

“You can look to the record of how he has done and the fact that he has been respected and returned to office many times — not just once, but many times — since this encounter occurred,” he said. “The fact that we are facing as our biggest question in the next session is some severe budget shortfalls, having a speaker who has been at the Appropriations table and understands the current issues is going to be invaluable to making sure we have a good leader directing the flow of business.”

Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples, said Nutting’s experience will aid him in the Republican mission to make Maine more business-friendly.

“I think it is not going to hurt him. I think this kind of thing is an example of a state government that needs to be reformed,” he said. “If you look back at the facts, you see a government that was not responsive to small business, and that is exactly what I’ve been elected to turn around, and I know there are many members of our caucus who feel the same way.”

Cushing and Cebra said they both were aware of the circumstances before the caucus leadership vote but could not speak for the entire 78-member Republican caucus, which has 38 members who did not serve in the previous Legislature.

“Most of those people said that they had some awareness. They did not necessarily have the scale of knowledge, but they recollected articles in the paper,” Cushing said. “Bob has been, in my opinion, forthcoming with anyone who had the courtesy to call him and ask him a question. The difficulty is with people who haven’t had the courtesy to call him and find the facts out; and when people in e-mails to me or in comments start throwing around words like ‘fraud’ or ‘misappropriation,’ it tells me that they have not even bothered to read the public documents about what occurred in that case.”

State Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who was elected House minority leader on Thursday, said she wants to see Nutting succeed and that the Democrats have no plans to nominate their own candidate to challenge him for House speaker.

“I would rather see us learn from this experience together and really learn what it was. As long as he’s being forthright about what happened, it’s hard to be critical,” she said. “The process he went through was, I am sure, very difficult. It was also very thorough.”

Republicans, who have won control of the Legislature and the Blaine House for the first time in decades, will be judged by what they do next, Cain said.

“If they work with us, I think we can all find something positive in the next session when it comes to Medicaid, when it comes to our economy,” she said, adding that Nutting’s history would be part of the “reality and the context in which we move forward.”

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