AUGUSTA – State lawmakers expressed bipartisan support Thursday for House Speaker nominee Robert Nutting, despite revelations that his bankrupt pharmacy failed to repay about $1.2 million in MaineCare overpayments it received over a five-year period ending in 2001.

The issue of the payments arose anew when the Republican from Oakland was nominated by House Republicans last week to be their leader in the coming session. On Thursday, Republicans and Democrats alike praised Nutting’s character and said his experience — which Nutting has said came from an honest accounting mistake — will serve to inform his role as a legislative leader.

“He was not unwilling to settle, he was unable to settle” with the state, said Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, who last week was elected assistant majority leader, the No. 3 House leadership position. “He agreed to comply and attempted to negotiate a payment schedule.”

Nutting said Wednesday that his pharmacy, True’s, was forced to file for bankruptcy because the state insisted that roughly $1.6 million in MaineCare overpayments be repaid more quickly than the company could handle. In the end, only about $433,000 was repaid to the state and federal governments, according to state records.

Cushing said Nutting has been re-elected by his constituents several times since the well-publicized incident, and has proven himself as a lawmaker.

“You can look to the record of how he has done and the fact that he has been respected and returned to office many times since this encounter occurred,” he said.

Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples, said Nutting’s experience will help him in the Republican mission to make Maine more business-friendly.

“This kind of thing is an example of a state government that needs to be reformed,” he said. “If you look back at the facts, you see a government that was not responsive to small business, and that is exactly what I’ve been elected to turn around, and I know there are many members of our caucus who feel the same way.”

Cushing and Cebra said they were aware of the circumstances before last week’s caucus leadership vote, but could not speak for the 78-member Republican caucus, which has 38 members who did not serve in the previous Legislature.

“Bob has been, in my opinion, forthcoming with anyone who had the courtesy to call him and ask him a question,” Cushing said. “The difficulty is with people who haven’t had the courtesy to call him and find the facts out.”

Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who was elected House minority leader Thursday, said she wants to see Nutting succeed, and that Democrats have no plans to nominate their own candidate to challenge him for House speaker.

“I would rather see us learn from this experience together and really learn what it was. As long as he’s being forthright about what happened, it’s hard to be critical,” she said. “The process he went through was, I am sure, very difficult. It was also very thorough.”

Republicans, who have control of the Legislature and the Blaine House for the first time in decades, will be judged by what they do next, Cain said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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