Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Why Ross should recuse

After a couple of online publications wrote about the highly profitable sale of his family’s drugstore to a big pharmaceutical chain, U. S. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) fought back with a vengeance over the weekend, and he picked up a strange ally, the Republican editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Whether his contretemps with ProPublica and Politico, neither of which his constituents in south Arkansas had ever heard of, will serve him well or ill remains to be seen. The issue and the transaction may be too arcane for most voters in south Arkansas to grasp or even to care about. On the other hand, Ross used it to build up his already ample campaign chest. His Facebook page said extremists were out to get him because of his center-stage role in the health-care debate in Congress and he needed lots more money to fight “these untrue attacks.” He invited people to come to his campaign opening with Bill Clinton at Hot Springs on Oct. 17 and give to the cause. Ross was a driver for Clinton in one of his early campaigns.

The point of the ProPublica and Politico reporting on the 2007 sale of the drugstore to USA Drug was to suggest that the very profitable transaction shaped Ross’ work on the health-care reform bill in the House because his efforts benefited the pharmaceutical industry and retail druggists. Since Ross and the Democrat Gazette in back-to-back editorials laid out all the “true” facts about his sale and condemned the reporting as both conspiratorial and erroneous, we may be pardoned for setting the record even straighter.

The Democrat Gazette said it was a liberal plot against the poor congressman and it cited funders of ProPublica who have supported liberal causes. For good measure, it threw in Acorn, the poor people’s organization that got a black eye this month from Fox News accounts of three or four of its employees advising a faux prostitute and her pimp how to break tax laws. But the paper ignored the fact that ProPublica’s partner in the reporting was Politico, a Republican blog funded by the Allbritton family, a supporter of right-wing causes and politicians usually favored by the Democrat Gazette.

But about those “facts”: The journalists compared the sale price of the drugstore to its assessed value of the property recorded at the Nevada County Courthouse. Ross said any real estate person would tell you that the assessed value of commercial property bears no relationship to its fair market value. Maybe not in Nevada County, but by law it is supposed to. Property must be assessed at 100 percent of its fair market value. Ross was either paid far more than the property was worth or he had been paying far too little in taxes. We are willing to accept that the latter is true.

Ross and the editorial writer praised both Ross’ willingness to produce every last detail about the transaction and the newspaper’s own diligent reporting on the deal. But neither Ross nor the Democrat Gazette’s reporters have revealed particulars about the arrangement that would shed light on the total value of the sale to Ross and his wife. When they do, perhaps Ross can rightfully claim that the big company was the one that got a bargain and that it sought and got nothing from the transaction but a new market in the town of Prescott.

The congressman said USA Drug, the retail industry, the big pharmaceuticals and the health-insurance industry got no favors from him in his work on the health-reform legislation in the House Energy Committee. As the leader of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats, Ross forced some major concessions on the bill sought by the insurance companies and the drug industry.

But don’t take our word for it. The National Community Pharmacist Association sent out a news release in August thanking Ross for amending the health-reform bill to help pharmacies on insurance reimbursements. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores issued a release in June thanking him for legislation authorizing payments to pharmacists to train patients in how to manage their medicines.

The Democrat Gazette is the source of further evidence. Soon after the Prescott sale, the owner of USA Drug, Stephen L. LaFrance, said it was important for his industry to defeat comprehensive national health-insurance legislation because government competition would harm the insurance industry. The pharmaceutical industry can charge the high prices that it does for drugs only because the private insurance industry guarantees them. If government doesn’t interfere, he said, there are “nothing but good days ahead” for the drug and insurance industries.

Ross promised last month, after waffling for months, that he would fight to prevent a government role in insuring everyone.

But we will concede this: Ross probably would have done it anyway, without the lucrative sale of his business to an unusually interested party. But it couldn’t have hurt.