TULSA, Sept. 14 -- One of the most competitive Senate races in the country turned nasty this week, as former GOP congressman and obstetrician Tom Coburn has had to respond to published reports that he committed Medicaid fraud 14 years ago.
The allegation stems from a medical malpractice suit brought by a 20-year-old woman who said that Coburn, without her permission, removed one of her fallopian tubes, which left her sterilized. The case never went to trial, but court documents first reported this week by Salon.com show that Coburn withheld information about the sterilization in submitting a bill to Medicaid for a related procedure involving a troubled pregnancy because the Medicaid program does not cover the sterilization of anyone younger than 21. Coburn said he withheld the information to ensure the woman was reimbursed for the cost of removing the other fallopian tube in which a fetus was lodged.
In an interview yesterday, Coburn denied that he had committed fraud or malpractice and accused his Democratic opponent, Rep. Brad Carson, of leaking the details of the case to the "liberal" Internet publication.
"This whole thing smells," Coburn said. "It's a coordinated effort to undermine my character. You are going to see this race change in the next 10 days. I am going to fight for my reputation."
Coburn and Carson, a two-term House member, are locked in a bitter battle for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Don Nickles. Polls show the race virtually tied, with Carson gaining on Coburn after a month of aggressive Democratic campaigning and advertising -- coupled with a series of odd and controversial comments by Coburn.
Coburn has advocated the death penalty for abortionists, and said the state was not attracting business because of some undefined "crapheads" blocking it in Oklahoma City.
Political analysts see the race as an interesting tossup in a state that favors registered Democrats but that has voted increasingly Republican in the past four decades. Lyndon B. Johnson was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Oklahoma.
Coburn entered the primary late, after the Republican mainstream establishment had thrown its support behind the former mayor of Oklahoma City, and raced to victory. Coburn is known as a political iconoclast, and the Carson campaign has used Coburn's actions to paint him as an ideologue averse to compromise.
The Carson campaign yesterday denied being the source of the Salon article. "These are public documents that anyone can obtain," spokesman Brad Luna said. "[The fraud charge] is a serious matter, and Tom Coburn needs to address the questions raised. Voters have a right to know the full story."
Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post: "These revelations strike at the heart of Coburn's ethics, morality and his very fitness for office -- all of which have seriously been called into question."
The Post obtained a copy of the 12-year-old lawsuit.
Coburn conceded in his deposition that he sterilized the woman without her written consent, but said on Tuesday and in his deposition that she had previously repeatedly asked him to tie her tubes. The fraud allegation raised by Salon relates to how Coburn filed the procedure for a Medicaid reimbursement, in light of the Medicaid stricture against paying for the sterilization of patients younger than 21.
Although there is no evidence Coburn filed for reimbursement for that procedure, at issue is whether he was obligated to inform Medicaid of every procedure he performed that day. In Tuesday's interview, Coburn said that he did nothing wrong. "If you don't file to get paid, there's no fraud," he said. "I did what was right, and I did what she asked me to do. I am not a liar, and I don't defraud people."
In his deposition, Coburn said he told the woman "that she shouldn't talk about it because I did a procedure that was not recognized under [Medicaid] reimbursement." He said yesterday that he was concerned about the patient's bills -- not about his compensation.