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The office plans to spend $42.7 million this year, an increase of nearly 25 percent since the year Ken Cuccinelli took office.
Sunday, August 11, 2013
The state attorney general’s office has grown dramatically under Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is campaigning for governor with a call to get government off the backs of the public. Much of the gain has come from federal dollars to combat Medicaid fraud.
The office plans to spend $42.7 million this year, up nearly 25 percent from $34.3 million the year Cuccinelli took office, state budget documents show. That outpaces the 15.7 percent growth in the total state budget over the same time, including the 13 percent increase in the governor’s office or the 1.4 percent decline in funding for the state’s main law enforcement agency, the Virginia State Police.
Staffing is set to rise 19 percent, to 381 positions.
“Each year since 2010, Attorney General Cuccinelli has worked with a smaller general fund budget than the 2010 budget he was given when he arrived,” spokesman Brian Gottstein said, referring to the portion of the office’s budget directly funded by Virginia taxpayers. That portion is $20.1 million this year, according to the enacted state budget for fiscal year 2014.
“Even despite that, every year he also saved enough money to return part of that budget back to the state. For example, this year, he returned $1.4 million,” Gottstein said.
The growth in the office has come from a near doubling of staffing at the unit that prosecutes Medicaid fraud as well as the transfer to it of the state’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Virginia Human Rights Council.
Budget records show spending on Medicaid fraud has nearly tripled, to $12.2 million, largely because of a 164 percent increase in federal grants for the work, which now exceed $9 million. The rest of the unit’s money comes from fines from criminal convictions. At the same time, total spending on Medicaid increased 28 percent to more than $8 billion a year.
The expanded staff’s fraud recoveries totaled $1.58 billion over the past nearly four years, Gottstein said. That includes a joint effort with federal prosecutors that resulted in $1.5 billion of forfeitures, fines and civil settlements.
“If the AG’s budget has gone up 25 percent, that’s a Democratic TV ad, or a part of one,” said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.
“There’s apparently a legitimate reason for the increase. But in the eyes of an ad-maker, it’s Cuccinelli’s job to get that side of the equation out there, and he may have to spend a sizable sum to do so,” he added. “This is money he can’t spend on more productive endeavors.”
There is a need to keep up after fraud against Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law expert at the University of Richmond School of Law.
Still, he said, “It is a lot for a small government guy.”
The Medicaid fraud unit won 24 criminal convictions for fraud during the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013, up from 13 the year Cuccinelli took office.
It resolved six civil cases in the last fiscal year, down from eight the year before.
It dropped 85 cases, or 25 percent of pending cases, for insufficient evidence or a decision not to continue to pursue legal action last year. That is up from 34 dropped cases, or 18 percent of the pending total, the year Cuccinelli took office. The unit opened 188 cases last year, up 72 percent over that same time.
While the Office of the Attorney General has increased spending on Medicaid fraud cases, its budget for providing legal advice to state agencies fell 10 percent during Cuccinelli’s term, to $26.8 million a year.
Gottstein said that reflects lower spending on senior staff salaries and recruiting fewer senior staff members at the beginning of the administration as well as consolidating office space and cutting travel.
It was through this part of the office that Cuccinelli launched several high profile lawsuits that critics have said were politically motivated. Gottstein said those cases are handled by staff on hand as part of their regular duties and that Cuccinelli did not hire lawyers especially for that work.
Some have been skeptical of that effort.
“Those were costly, expensive cases,” Tobias said. “And he lost most of them.”
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his case against the Affordable Care Act, saying he had not demonstrated Virginia had legal standing in the matter.
A federal appeals court in Washington rejected his argument against new federal fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. A state circuit court rejected his effort to pursue a former University of Virginia climate researcher for fraud.
“People judge an AG on the basis of the controversial decisions and stands they’ve heard about, as well any broad achievements that the AG has boasted about during his term,” Sabato said.
But it is tough for voters to look at how well any attorney general runs the office, he added. Office staff don’t talk much about the work that goes into the briefs or legal opinions the office produces.
Tobias said he’s been disturbed by what seem to him to be signs of a lack of attention to running the office.
Those include a federal magistrate’s sharp criticism of the help a senior lawyer in the Office of the Attorney General gave gas companies fending off claims for royalties from Southwest Virginia landowners, and Cuccinelli’s comments that his staff walled him off from an investigation of charges of malfeasance at the Executive Mansion because of a potential conflict of interests, he said.
The attorney general has said one of his staff was overzealous but was properly defending the state’s Gas and Oil Act when she helped the gas companies, one of which companies gave more than $111,000 to Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial campaign.
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