Gingrich, Democrats criticize Romney links to Medicare fraud

Democrats, unions and Newt Gingrich's supporters have ramped up efforts over the past week to tie Mitt Romney to Medicare fraud allegations against a company Bain Capital controlled two decades ago.

The effort aims to harm Romney on two levels ahead of Tuesday's crucial Florida primary. 

It links him to the massive fraud that's slowly bankrupting a Medicare program millions of Florida seniors rely on, while tying him to Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott, whose popularity has sunk in polls.

"In the debate the other day, Mitt Romney (made) the claim that he never did business with the government, which is absolutely false," Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said in a conference call with reporters Friday. "In fact, Mitt Romney served on the board and personally pocketed $500,000 from the Damon Corp., a company that was fraudulently bilking Medicare out of millions of dollars."

Bain Capital bought Damon Corp. in 1989, when Romney was at its head. The firm in 1996 agreed to pay a $116 million fine after pleading guilty to overbilling Medicare from 1988 through 1993, according to PolitiFact. Romney was never charged with wrongdoing.

The controversy plagued Romney when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees resurrected the charge in an ad that began running this month, and a super-PAC that supports Gingrich followed suit on Thursday.

The AFSCME goes one further and compares Romney to Scott, whose approval rating has dipped below 40 percent. Scott resigned as chief executive of Columbia/HCA — the nation's largest private for-profit healthcare company — in 1997 amid a Medicare billing scandal that eventually cost the company $1.7 billion in fines, the largest penalty in Medicare history. He was never charged with wrongdoing.

Romney's campaign defended the candidate's record while blasting Gingrich and his allies.

"Once again, Speaker Gingrich is reaching in to President Obama's playbook and trying to re-litigate old Democrat attacks," campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an e-mail. "Speaker Gingrich and his political cronies are desperate to distract from his record of failed and unreliable leadership, and voters won't be fooled."

Correction: Fines against HCA ended up reaching $1.7 billion, not $600 million as we reported at first.