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Lobbyist's offer part of inquiry; Steen, Barnhart say no to bribe, can't comment on the details

By Steve Huffman
shuffman@salisburypost.com
A Rowan County representative to the N.C. House is in the middle of a controversy involving alleged improprieties pertaining to a pending bill.
By all accounts, Fred Steen (R-Rowan) did everything right when a lobbyist made an improper offer, reporting it immediately to the House Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, members of which subsequently referred the activity to the State Bureau of Investigation.
Steen returned a phone call Thursday to the Post, but said only, “I can’t say anything.”
Rep. Lorene Coates (D-Rowan) said House members were told that a lobbyist for Blue Cross Blue Shield offered to pay off the debt of a representative’s constituent if the representative killed a bill pertaining to procedures affecting how insurers collect overpayments from doctors.
Steen is one of the co-sponsors of House Bill 1485. But Coates said she was never told officially that Steen was the legislator offered the bribe.
“I heard that later,” she said.
Coates said she was told that once Steen refused the bribe, it was offered to Rep. Jeff Barnhart (R-Cabarrus), another of the bill’s sponsors. He also refused the bribe, Coates said she was told.
“I’m told that both of them handled it exactly the way they should have,” she said.
Barnhart had little to say about the matter late Thursday afternoon. “Honestly, I just can’t comment,” he said while driving back to Cabarrus County from Raleigh.
The bill’s other sponsors are Wil Neuman of Gaston County and Bob England of Rutherfordton.
A letter from the head of the State Employees Association of North Carolina names Ken Wright of Blue Cross Blue Shield as the lobbyist whose actions regarding a pending bill were called into question in a recent opinion issued by the Ethics Committee.
The letter from SEANC Executive Director Dana Cope was sent to House Speaker Joe Hackney. It cites allegations regarding the pending bill as reason to reconsider changes approved to the State Health Plan.
“It is widely understood that while this bill was pending before a House Committee, Ken Wright, a lobbyist for Blue Cross Blue Shield, is alleged to have made an improper offer to Rep. Fred Steen in exchange for the bill being killed,” Cope wrote in the letter.
According to The Insider, a privately-owned Internet news service that reports on state government, an opinion issued recently by the Ethics Committee named neither Wright nor Steen.
“The document said an unnamed legislator requested whether it was proper to proceed with a bill after an unnamed lobbyist offered to have his principal reduce or forgive the debt of a constituent in exchange for killing a bill,” reads an article from the May 20 edition of The Insider.
The news service stated on May 21 that Steen filed the bill in response to a dispute between a constituent, Dr. Eric Troyer of Troyer Family Practice in China Grove, and Blue Cross. Troyer did not return a phone call from the Post on Thursday, but The Insider stated that Troyer said Blue Cross presented him a bill in February for more than $400,000 in overpayments.
“The demand for reimbursement is in dispute not because of any law but because of a national, court-approved settlement entered into (by) Blue organizations, including BCBS North Carolina, in 2007,” reads The Insider. “At issue are several stipulations laid out in the settlement, including that the Blues cannot try to recover overpayments going back more than 18 months except in cases of fraud or where demanded by federal or state programs. Troyer said the demand for repayment goes back more than four years, and that no allegation of fraud has been made. The settlement also requires that specific information about individual claims be included in any demand for reimbursement, something which Troyer says was not done.”
Troyer said the insurer began withholding payments for new claims as a result of the dispute.
“I feel badly that he’s been caught up in this,” Troyer told The Insider, referring to Steen. “I’m very proud of what he did, that he did not take their offer even though it would have helped me.”
A written statement provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield said the company takes “these allegations seriously and will cooperate to resolve them.”
State Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Davie) said he hadn’t heard for sure the legislators involved in the improper offer, but, like Coates, said he was told they handled the matter as they should.
“The legislators involved did the right thing,” Brock said. “They were caught in the middle. The only violation involved the lobbyist.”

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