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WellCare wins a round in FL Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court has rejected an attempt to disqualify Attorney General Bill McCollum from helping decide how much WellCare Health Plans should have to pay to settle a massive fraud investigation.

Sean Hellein, a former WellCare accountant whose role as a whistleblower was pivotal in the investigation, sought to bar McCollum's involvement because of WellCare political contributions to the attorney general and the state Republican Party.

Hellein's attorney, Barry Cohen, called a news conference in October to announce filing the unusual legal petition and to deride a political process that he likened to ''legal bribery'' disguised as campaign contributions.

But the Supreme Court last week rejected the petition, issuing a one-line order that says it was ''dismissed as facially insufficent.''

The petition stemmed from a proposed $137.5 million settlement between WellCare and the federal and state governments because of widespread Medicaid fraud by the Tampa-based HMO. Hellein worked undercover for more than a year --- including wearing a wire to record conversations and meetings --- before a 2007 FBI raid on company headquarters.

This morning, Cohen would say only that he is not yet done fighting to get a larger settlement.

Sandi Copes, a McCollum spokeswoman, said in an e-mail this morning: "Our office was aware of the dismissal, and we respect the Court's ruling. Our office did not file a brief or weigh in on the matter because of the nature of the filing.''

Hellein has alleged that WellCare stole $400 million from the Florida Medicaid program. If that is true, the government could seek to force payments far higher than $137.5 million.

The petition sought McCollum's disqualification because of what it termed ''irreconcilable conflicts of interest'' that resulted from campaign contributions. Cohen argued that WellCare and related entities contributed $2.6 million to the state Republican Party and candidates between 2004 and 2007.

Cohen said WellCare entities gave $9,000 to McCollum's 2006 campaign --- but that WellCare contributions to the Republican Party also filtered through to help elect the attorney general.

"The frailties of human nature make it impossible for McCollum to carry out his constitutional duty to fairly decide on WellCare matters, including a proposed settlement resolving hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid fraud liability,'' the petition said.

But Supreme Court justices dismissed the petition without holding a hearing. The order did not give detail about their reasoning.

The status of the proposed $137.5 million settlement remains unclear. But unless it is resolved during the next three weeks, McCollum will not be involved in a final decision.

McCollum unsuccessfully ran for governor this year and will be succeeded in January by Attorney General-elect Pam Bondi. A WellCare company contributed $500 to Bondi's campaign, according to election records.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.