In the race for the Republican nomination for attorney general, former Hillsborough County prosecutor Pam Bondi continues to contrast her courtroom experience with the political experience of opponents Jeff Kottkamp and Holly Benson.
One of the distinctions Bondi makes is that while Kottkamp, the lieutenant governor, and Benson, the former secretary for the Agency for Health Care Administration, can talk about taking on criminals, she's actually done it.
Take pill mills for examples. Doctors illegally writing prescriptions for painkillers is a big issue in Florida and has been a focus of current Attorney General Bill McCollum. The issue also has been a centerpiece of Kottkamp's campaign.
Though Kottkamp oversees the Governor's Office of Drug Control, Bondi notes that she has been on the front lines as a prosecutor.
"You've heard General McCollum talk about pill mills," Bondi said to a group of Republicans on April 28, 2010, in Clay County. "(I) prosecuted them. Dealt with them. Shut them down."
She's made the claim, or a claim close to it, several times during the campaign. We heard something similar when Bondi came to speak June 3 to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg. We wanted to see if Bondi, in her nearly two decades as a prosecutor, has shut down pill mills.
Bondi worked as an assistant state attorney for Hillsborough County from 1992 to 2009 where she says she prosecuted thousands of cases, including murder, rape and drug cases.
Her campaign office said she participated in the prosecution of multiple drug trafficking cases involving prescription medications. "At the time, they weren't called 'pill mills,' but she investigated and charged pain clinic doctors for trafficking and controlled substances," said Bondi spokeswoman Kim Kirtley. Kirtley said Bondi had trouble remembering the names of the specific cases.
But the spokeswoman did point PolitiFact Florida to a 2008 case to make Bondi's point that she has shut down pill mills.
The case involves Dr. John Mubang, who was arrested in Hillsborough County on July 16, 2008, and charged with trafficking in prescription drugs while he worked as an internal medicine doctor at a Tampa medical facility he owned and operated.
According to law enforcement officials, Mubang prescribed controlled substances to patients without a valid medical reason. Medical records show that Mubang prescribed drugs to at least five people who subsequently died from accidental overdoses.
The investigation and arrest was coordinated among the state attorney's office, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. We found no reason to doubt Bondi's involvement in the case. Her name, for instance, is included on the FDLE press release announcing the arrest. We should note, however, that Bondi did not represent the state attorney's office at pre-trial hearings.
Mubang is currently free on bond awaiting trial.
And, here's the rub, he's back to prescribing drugs.
Bondi's response: 'Unreal"
Bondi called PolitiFact Florida in the middle of filming a television commercial when she heard Mubang was back publicly soliciting clients.
"He was shut down. He reopened in a different way," Bondi said. "This helps illustrate the tremendous problems we have with pill mills. The guy is on an ankle bracelet! Can you believe that? It's unreal the problem we have in our state with pill mills."
In a front-page story published in June 2010, the St. Petersburg Times updated Mubang's story.
"As Mubang awaits ... trial on felony charges of trafficking in illegal drugs and prescribing controlled substances without medical necessity, he is free to keep seeing patients and dispensing drugs," the Times reported. "His state Health Department license record consumers can see online shows not one single blemish -- no complaints, no discipline."
The article noted that Mubang was advertising his services in news publications, including the Times' free daily tabloid, tbt*, and has been touting his willingness to see patients without an appointment.
"The audacity of a doctor who's currently being prosecuted to go back and do it again is outrageous," Bondi said.
The Mubang story illustrates just how hard it can be to permanently shut down pain clinics. Bruce Grant, director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control, describes pill mill doctors as nothing more than drug dealers in white lab coats.
The clinics themselves are often run by someone else, who simply finds a down-on-their-luck doctor to write out the prescriptions. Catch one bad doctor, and another can step in. It's difficult, Grant says, to pin a case on the people with the money behind the clinics.
And clients are unlikely to testify against a doctor prescribing drugs. In fact, most say the doctor is under-prescribing, Grant says. That means investigations center almost always on undercover work.
"These are not easy things to stop," Grant said. "Our laws are set up to allow things to happen, not to stop them."
Grant's office and law enforcement officials have started to work closely with the Department of Health to temporarily suspend the licenses of doctors who are believed to be prescribing drugs illegally.
Eulinda Smith, a spokeswoman with the Department of Health, provided PolitiFact Florida with a list of the current doctors and health care providers whose licenses have been suspended by emergency action. Mubang is not included.
Bondi said that as a Hillsborough prosecutor she's shut down pill mills and offered the case of Dr. John Mubang as an example. But Mubang's story highlights how difficult it is to stop pill mills, and in fact, is an excellent example of the problem the next attorney general will face.
Mubang was shut down briefly following his arrest, but he's back in business pending trial.
To be sure, PolitiFact Florida searched Hillsborough County court records to find other specific cases Bondi may have been involved with. So did Bondi, who maintains that she has prosecuted other cases involving doctors who prescribed medicine illegally. But she couldn't find another specific case for us to analyze. We couldn't either. That leaves us to judge her claim based on the evidence she's provided.
As such, we rate Bondi's claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.