The Latest "Flap" Over Our Vacationer-in-Chief

(AP Photo )

The things you have to go through in order to hang out with the beautiful people.

All the president wanted was a peaceful late August on Martha's Vineyard where he could log some quality rest and recreation time with the Michelle and the kids. True, at a reported $35,000 to $50,000 a week at the Blue Heron Farm, this is not your typical recession-era vacation spot. But we are talking about the Vineyard, after all. You want the Real America? Try Bensonhurst in late summer.

But there's no true getting away from the goings-on in Washington. Mr. Obama now finds himself getting grief for his choice of vacation venue. A conservative activist is underwriting a television spot which depicts the Vacationer-in-Chief as out of touch with the needs of the common folk.

"The beach is nice this time of year," the ad begins. "But while President Obama vacations, concerns mount about his health-care plan. Why? Because his public-option health plan could lead to government-run health care, higher taxes on everything from paychecks to soda, and add a trillion to the deficit. Mr. President, when you go back to D.C., drop your government-run public-option plan. Let's get on with real reform to lower costs and protect patients' rights."

Richard Scott, who heads the group, called "Conservatives for Patients' Rights," is a familiar face in the national debate over health care reform. An outspoken opponent of the administration's plans, Scott's activism has also invited the president's aides to call reporters' attention to his previous association with Columbia Hospital Corporation (later known as Columbia/HCA), a company that he led for a decade.

On the CPR Web site, Scott's bio includes the throwaway line that when he "left Columbia in 1997 at the age of 44, it was the 43rd most admired company in America." That's accurate, as far as it goes. A more complete narrative, however, would note that Columbia wound up as the target of a federal fraud investigation. In 2000, the company copped a guilty plea to fraud charges and agreed to pay the government $840 million. When you add in the subsequent civil suits, the company's final legal tab came out to $1.7 billion - a U.S. record.) Here's the Forbes epilogue on HCA:

"The guilty plea follows a seven-year federal investigation that resulted in charges being filed in five different federal courts in Florida, Texas, Georgia and Tennessee, where HCA is headquartered. The fraud revealed by that investigation ran deep within HCA's way of doing business... The company admitted to systematically overcharging the government by claiming marketing costs as reimbursable, by striking illegal deals with home care agencies, and by filing false data about how hospital space was being used. The company increased Medicare billings by exaggerating the seriousness of the illnesses they were treating. It also granted doctors partnerships in company hospitals as a kickback for the doctors referring patients to HCA. In addition, it gave doctors "loans" that were never expected to be paid back, free rent, free office furniture, and free drugs from hospital pharmacies."

Keep in mind that the authorities never charged Scott with criminal wrongdoing, though he was forced to resign from the company.(Below, you can watch a clip of Scott going one-on-one with CNN's Rick Sanchez.)

In another time and place, who knows - maybe President Obama and Scott might have found common ground. The irony is that Mr. Obama's opponent is just the sort of ex-mogul who would fit right in the on the Vineyard, which is a veritable playground for the moneyed and power elites. According to published reports, Scott resigned from HCA with a $10 million severance package as well as stock options which were then worth over $300 million. Even by Vineyard standards, that's more than just a good day at the beach. Of course, he'd still have to develop a taste for Pinot Grigio to truly bond with the locals. But, of course, that's an acquired taste.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.