Tuesday, October 23, 2018
  • The Buzz
  • From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Bilirakis takes credit for law he did not craft in new ad touting fight on opioids

In a campaign advertisement U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis released this week touting his work fighting opioids in Pasco County, the six-term congressman takes credit for a law he did not have a hand in crafting.

And it omits major legislation the Republican from Palm Harbor co-sponsored in 2016 that made it harder for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to intercept suspicious shipments of opioids to unscrupulous doctors and pharmacies.

The 30-second ad flashes text about a "Bilirakis INTERDICT ACT" as Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco says Bilirakis is "giving us the tools to do our job and get traffickers off the street."

The INTERDICT Act, signed by President Donald Trump in January, provides funding and equipment to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for detecting imported fentanyl. But Bilirakis was neither a sponsor nor one of 18 co-sponsors, making it unclear how it is the "Bilirakis INTERDICT Act."

Campaign spokesman Towson Fraser said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times the ad was worded that way because Bilirakis "voted for the act, it went through his committee, he participated in hearings about the need for it, and worked to support its passage."

However the bill was only referred to the Committee on Homeland Security, which Bilirakis does not serve on. When told about this, Fraser later replied in an email to the Times: "I was wrong about the committee."

The ad also highlights a bill Bilirakis filed Sept. 5 to change the threshold the DEA must meet to intercept suspicious shipments of drugs as Nocco says Bilirakis has "taken on the big drug companies." But it omits the controversy that prompted Bilirakis to file the bill in the first place.

In 2016 Bilirakis was one of six co-sponsors of The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which gutted a 40-year-old policy that allowed the DEA to halt shipments of drugs that posed "an imminent danger" to the public.

Big Pharma began lobbying intensely for a change to the standard in 2014, a 2017 investigation by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes first revealed. Since lobbying for the law began, Bilirakis accepted $40,000 from the same drug companies Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi would later say "caused the opioid crisis," according to the Federal Election Commission filings.

IN DEPTH: Two months before election, Bilirakis tries to tweak flawed opioid bill he backed

The new law in 2016 made the DEA prove a "substantial likelihood of an immediate threat," a far higher bar that gave drug companies a freer reign as the opioid crisis ravaged the nation.

In the same year the law Bilirakis co-sponsored passed, there were 5,725 opioid-related deaths in Florida, a 35 percent hike from 2015, according to the state Medical Examiners Commission. In 2016, Pasco and Pinellas counties had the highest number of oxycodone deaths in the state.

Bilirakis stated he had no idea the 2016 law would hinder the DEA and that he supported the bill because constituents complained about difficulty accessing prescriptions.

Through a spokesman, Nocco declined to comment on Bilirakis taking credit for the INTERDICT Act he did not craft or his involvement in the 2016 law hindering the DEA, referring the Times to Bilirakis' office.

Bilirakis is facing a challenge from Democrat Chris Hunter for the 12th Congressional District, which covers north Pinellas, all of Pasco, and a portion of Hillsborough counties.

Hunter, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, said Bilirakis' "complicity" in the opioid crisis is one factor that prompted him to quit his job at the Department of Justice in December to run for Congress.

"Now Bilirakis is trying to cover up his conduct, which was exposed a year ago, and he's doing so with dubious claims that raise even more questions than they answer," Hunter said.

IN DEPTH: Will Chris Hunter be the Democrat to break the Bilirakis dynasty?

This is not the first factual error the Bilirakis campaign published this election cycle.

In July, Bilirakis released a press release inflating the amount of financial support his campaign received from locals. The press release stated 90 percent of his contributions so far came from Floridians when, in reality, only 62 percent even came from individuals at the time. The rest came from political action committees, almost all out of state.

Fraser blamed the error on an editing mistake.

Fraser also declined to confirm or deny the Bilirakis campaign's involvement in a push poll released in August that made misleading statements about Hunter. 

The telephone poll asked voters whether they would be less likely to vote for Hunter if they knew he wanted to dismantle U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and open the borders, when in reality, Hunter does not support either concept.

The poll also asked whether voters would be more or less likely to back Hunter if they knew he supported House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for House Speaker. Hunter has never stated he would support Pelosi, instead stating he would not if elected because "we need to have a new generation of leaders in Congress."

On Wednesday Hunter said the Bilirakis TV ad is the latest falsehood in "a pattern that reflects his indifference to truth and an attitude that he can say and do whatever he wants because he's never been held accountable."

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