A Key West group that wants the island’s for-profit hospital to change ownership has crashed the Monroe County state attorney’s race, saying incumbent Catherine Vogel needs to investigate Lower Keys Medical Center.
“I cannot take something to the grand jury unless there’s a crime involved,” Vogel said Monday at a political event in Key West. “I would be pandering to this election and that’s something I really can’t do.”
Vogel was asked in a full-page ad in a local Sunday newspaper to impanel a grand jury over claims of fraudulent billing and poor services at Lower Keys Medical Center, owned by health-care giant Community Health Systems — something she has already said she can’t do.
Vogel, a Democrat, said Dr. Elias Gerth has said he has evidence of federal crimes.
“My office has been looking and examining information to see whether or not we can establish a state crime,” Vogel said. “If and when we find something that can be criminal, we will take it to the grand jury.”
Former State Attorney Dennis Ward, a Republican, has seized upon the issue of the hospital — located in Key West where Vogel lives and had strong support in 2012 when she defeated Ward (he was a Democrat at the time).
The Committee to Rescue Our Hospital paid for the Sunday full-page ad, which former City Commissioner Tony Yaniz called an unfair ploy to try to force Vogel’s hand before all the facts are in.
“I cannot support political assassination under the guise of ‘good for the community,’ ” said Yaniz, adding he believes the hospital is guilty of “a myriad of allegations.” Yaniz resigned from the committee because of the ad while Ward says he would not shy away from any case if elected.
“I’m committed to taking the big cases, just like this hospital case,” Ward said. “And I disagree with the state attorney. There’s plenty of cases that have gone to a grand jury that didn’t involve crime.”
No, Vogel replied, saying there are two reasons to call a grand jury: A crime has been committed or a public agency or official is at the center of a case.
“This hospital is not a public agency,” Vogel said. “There must be a crime for it to go to the grand jury. That’s exactly black-letter law.”
Ward says he wouldn’t hesitate to convene a grand jury and called Vogel’s administration “lazy” and ineffective.
Ward meets Vogel along with Libertarian first-time candidate Shad Neiss of Key West in the Nov. 8 election.
Neiss, who wants state prosecutors to focus on violent crime and back off small drug possession cases, has stayed out of the hospital argument, more interested in declaring Florida’s incarceration rate is out of control.
Meanwhile, Ward has portrayed himself as an opponent of public corruption.
“We prosecuted people for stealing taxpayer dollars,” Ward said of his tenure. “We didn’t lose any of them. A lot of them did jail time. We changed the way the whole School District is run.”
Ward said Vogel’s team is unreliable. “They’re ducking and weaving more than Muhammad Ali did,” Ward said.
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen