AUGUSTA — His fellow Republicans backed him when he was in trouble in 2003 — and they still back him now.
When state Rep. Robert Nutting was battling Maine regulators in 2003 over a payment plan for the $1 million-plus his pharmacy owed the state in Medicaid overbilling, his fellow Kennebec County Republican lawmakers demanded that Gov. John Baldacci intervene in the conflict and force a resolution of the long-running conflict.
Baldacci declined to get involved. A response sent by his then-counsel, Kurt Adams, said, “the Governor cannot intervene in the manner you have requested because he would be infringing upon the powers and duties lawfully assigned to the Attorney General.”
Nutting declared the pharmacy business bankrupt, leaving the state and feds with no way to collect $1.2 million in overpayments.
In interviews Wednesday with Julie Ann O’Brien, Ken Fletcher, William Browne and Earle McCormick, the four surviving signers of that letter (Skowhegan Rep. Maitland Richardson died in April 2010), all expressed their continuing support of Nutting.
They said they saw no contradiction in the fact that House Republicans, who had swept unexpectedly to power in the recent election in large part on a campaign of promoting fiscal discipline and fighting welfare fraud, had chosen as leader someone who had stuck the state with an unpaid bill.
“In no way do I even jump to the conclusion that there is an inconsistency between the leadership of the party and its message,” said outgoing Rep. Ken Fletcher of Winslow, who was named by Gov.-elect Paul LePage to his Budget Advisory Committee. “I don’t think we need to go through a major reform to hunt for abusers.”
O’Brien, who was an Augusta representative and is the former head of the Maine Republican Party, said Wednesday, “We Republicans, we do care about fraud; we definitely care about fraud. This, to me, was somewhat different.”
While acknowledging that Nutting had “made mistakes,” O’Brien said that the pharmacist was the victim of overzealous regulators: “They wanted to get him.”
Sen. Earle McCormick of West Gardiner believes Nutting was pursued too long by the state. That’s why he signed on to the 2003 letter.
“It just seemed appropriate to ask to get it resolved, and let’s speed it up,” he said. McCormick said he believed the issue had “been resolved.” He subsequently served for a number of years in the Legislature alongside Nutting.
“Since then, I’ve had no reason to question his decisions or what he’s done," McCormick said. "He’s worked as a pharmacist at Walmart and (other) places, so I wasn’t really concerned when they nominated him as speaker.”
Bill Browne, the Vassalboro representative who just served his last term because of term limits, said he likewise saw no problem with Nutting serving as speaker.
“I have no qualms at all," Browne said. "I think he’s fine; I think that like all arguments, there are two sides.”