Elizabeth McCarthy told a harrowing story about how her life had been touched by gun violence.
Standing behind the lectern at a March town hall hosted by Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) in Orlando, she described working as an emergency room doctor on June 12, 2016 — the night a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people in what was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Performing triage that night had been one of the hardest moments of her career, she told the audience, adding that when she wheeled bodies into the morgue, she could hear the victims’ cellphones ringing as their loved ones desperately tried to get in touch.
“That night, because I’m gay, it struck me even harder,” she said. “Because these were my people.”
Dressed in a black suit and flats, McCarthy paused frequently, seemingly overcome with emotion. The other panelists, including a sheriff and a survivor of the Pulse shooting, looked on, rapt, as she described the nightmarish scene that had unfolded in the operating room. When McCarthy said that she had personally removed 77 bullets from 32 people, the audience gasped.
“We’d never experienced something like that, something so horrific,” McCarthy told them. “But when you’re trained, you go into automatic mode.”
It was an incredible story. And none of it was true.
Six days after the town hall, McCarthy filed paperwork to run for the Florida House of Representatives as a Democrat. But her budding political career came to an abrupt end in June, after Florida Politics, an online media outlet, revealed that she had never been licensed to practice medicine in the state. According to records that were released to the site last week, McCarthy subsequently told the Florida Department of Health that she had lied about treating victims of the Pulse massacre.
“I just made it up,” she admitted to an investigator this month.
The 50-year-old, whose full name is Catherine Elizabeth McCarthy, had raised $1,506 for her campaign as of May 31, but didn’t draw the notice of reporters until she appeared at another town hall hosted by Soto in June. At that event, the congressman introduced her as one of his longtime advisers on health care issues, and described her as “a doctor who showed her mettle and heroism after the Pulse nightclub shooting.”
The next day, Florida Politics published a story questioning those claims. McCarthy, the site reported, had claimed to be a cardiologist at Orlando Regional Medical Center, where most of the victims of the Pulse shooting were treated. But the parent company of the hospital, Orlando Health, had no record of any doctor by that name working there. When questioned, McCarthy said that she was really employed by the Florida Heart Group of Orlando. But that company, too, had no record of her.
State Health Department records showed that McCarthy did have a background in the medical field: She had been a registered nurse until 2005, when her license expired, and later started a company called Medical Concierge, which was in business until 2014. But she had never been licensed as a doctor.
There were other discrepancies. McCarthy said that she played on the women’s basketball teams at both University of Florida and Florida State University, ultimately receiving a bachelor’s degree from Florida State after she transferred. She also said that she had earned her medical degree from the University of Central Florida. But none of the three schools could confirm any of those claims.
When Florida Politics questioned her about the inconsistencies after the June 14 town hall, McCarthy told the site that the she had “no idea” why her story wasn’t checking out.
"Why would I make something like this up?” she asked.
Claiming that she had been the victim of “campaign smearing,” McCarthy pledged to stay in the race. In late June, local Democratic Party officials announced that they wouldn’t support her candidacy unless she could prove she was a doctor. She refused.
“We asked for any kind of transcripts, diplomas, anything like that, that could explain what she did,” Seminole County Democratic Party Chairwoman Brittany Nethers told the Orlando Sentinel at the time. “She pretty much said that she doesn’t need to provide us with anything."
Around that same time, survivors of the Pulse shooting called on McCarthy to drop out of the race. “I don’t know why she lied and used our grief for her gain,” tweeted Brandon Wolf, who wrote that McCarthy had been telling the story of removing bullets from patients after the shooting for three years. “But she needs to withdraw & let us heal.”
Another survivor, Orlando Torres, told WKMG that McCarthy’s behavior had been “disrespectful,” and that it proved she couldn’t be trusted.
Soto, who had also recognized McCarthy during a March speech before Congress, distanced himself from her. In a June statement to local media outlets, his spokesman condemned her “sick fabrications” and announced plans to introduce new vetting protocols, explaining that McCarthy was “a longtime friend of several staff members,” and “had been presented by them and by several local Democratic and LGBT organizations as being a doctor.”
Finally, on June 28, roughly three months after announcing that she would challenge the incumbent Republican state representative in a district covering the suburbs northeast of Orlando, McCarthy withdrew from the race, citing “professional obligations” and her need to earn a paycheck. That might have been the end of the controversy, if it weren’t for the fact that misrepresenting yourself as a doctor without a valid license is against the law in Florida.
On July 9, an investigator from the state’s Health Department questioned McCarthy about her claims. At first, the 50-year-old insisted that she had really treated Pulse victims, and maintained that her story about removing 77 bullets from 32 patients was true. “It is really sad that this has become such a big deal,” she said, according to Orlando’s News 13.
Later in the interview, she admitted that she had lied, and told the detective that she had been pretending to be a doctor since 2014 or 2015, when she began preparing to run for office.
“I wanted to be somebody in the community, and I’m sorry,” she said.
Before her lies caught up to her, McCarthy played an active role in local Democratic politics. In his March floor speech, Soto described her as the legislative director for the Florida LGBTA Democratic Caucus, and federal chair of the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida. She is not currently listed as an officer on either group’s website, though the LGBTA caucus had called her its legislative director as recently as February, and a 2017 newsletter described her as the president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Greater Orlando.
As recently as April, McCarthy was also listed as a member of the onePULSE Foundation Memorial Task Force, which was formed to help oversee the creation of a permanent national memorial honoring the shooting victims. Though the group has yet to comment on her fabrications, McCarthy’s name has been scrubbed from the foundation’s website.
McCarthy now faces roughly $3,095 in fines for misrepresenting herself as a doctor, the Orlando Sentinel reported. She could not be reached for comment late Sunday night.
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