GAO wants payback for Medicare secrets and lies

Published September 8, 2004 5:58PM (EDT)

With so much going on in the world, we almost forgot about good old Tom Scully, the former Medicare administrator who threatened to fire the chief Medicare actuary unless he withheld information from Congress about the cost of the Medicare bill. Members of Congress, including conservative Republicans, only backed the bill because they received lower cost estimates. After the bill passed, the administration admitted the cost was actually a third more than Congress had been led to believe.

Yesterday, the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan congressional watchdog agency, concluded that Scully's actions were illegal and suggested Scully pay back seven months of his salary as a penalty, or about $85,000.

Scully is now a registered lobbyist for various pharmaceutical and health care companies (thank you, revolving door), and says he has no plans whatsoever to reimburse the government. Whether or not Scully has to fork over the money, the larger issue here becomes more clear and disturbing with the GAO's findings. The landmark Medicare legislation was passed based on lies to Congress and illegal acts.

Getting seven months of Scully's salary back doesn't exactly make up for the wrongdoing, but even that small punishment seems unlikely. Bush administration lawyers are claiming "executive privilege" protects the president's right to control whether employees like the intimidated Medicare actuary give information to Congress, even though in this case it meant preventing an employee from telling Congress the truth about how much the bill cost. That privilege, under the administration's logic, was the president's alone -- which he only exercised after Congress approved the bill based on misleading numbers. Sound ridiculous? The GAO thinks so, too, and rejected the administration's logic.

A law preventing Scully-style bullying has been on the books for nearly a century. But it turns out no federal official was ever found to have violated it. Until now. The New York Times reported: "Laura Kopelson, a spokeswoman for the Government Accountability Office, said lawyers there were 'not aware of any similar case' in which a federal official was found to have violated the law. 'This is the first time we have been asked to rule on this point of law,' she said."

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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