Idaho billionaire businessman Frank VanderSloot and Idaho Republican Party Second Vice Chairman Bryan Smith are occasionally political pals.
Most recently, they collaborated on a failed attempt to sink Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper’s re-election campaign last fall. Each put $5,000 into an “Anybody but Casper for Idaho Falls Mayor” campaign so filled with misleading claims that it plowed new ground for dirty tricks.
Now they’ve turned on each other.
VanderSloot, CEO of Melaleuca, doesn’t like the way Smith makes his living.
On that score, VanderSloot is in good company.
Smith, who tried and failed to dislodge Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, in 2014, is a medical debt chaser.
Not only does he get about a third of every bill he collects, but this attorney — and his fellow lawyer and associate, Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls — attach legal fees on top of it. And since the people they’re pursuing can’t afford to fight back by hiring lawyers, those legal fees eclipse the original debt many times over.
On top of that, Smith will garnish the poor individual’s wages.
East Idaho News, the internet news site VanderSloot founded, put the spotlight on the company associated with Smith, Medical Recovery Services.
It told the story of one woman, a Melaleuca employee, whose $294 medical bill mushroomed into a $5,583 legal judgment. The news site also detailed the case of another man whose misplaced bill for a colonoscopy morphed into more than $30,000 in added legal charges before he prevailed in a lawsuit that went all the way to the Idaho Supreme Court.
As Idaho Falls Post Register columnist Carrie Scheid documented earlier this year, Smith’s firm pursued 5,590 medical debt lawsuits during a three-year period. In 90 percent of them, Smith relied upon Zollinger’s legal services.
Meanwhile, VanderSloot recently put up $500,000 to cover the bills of anyone who needs a legal defense against Smith and Zollinger’s lawsuits. That may put a crimp in Smith’s cash flow.
To say these two guys lack a public sense of shame would be an understatement.
Hypocrisy did not preclude Smith from serving as the attorney who attempted to get Proposition 2 — the ballot initiative extending Medicaid to more than 62,000 uninsured Idahoans — tossed out of court. Had he won and those 62,000 people remained uninsured, his business would have prospered.
Zollinger’s conscience suffered not a bit when he not only voted to repeal Prop. 2, but also sponsored an amendment that would saddle more people with more medical debt for him to chase after. Never once did he decide to bow out — or even acknowledge his blatant conflict of interest.
So it’s no surprise that in taking them on, VanderSloot is drawing accolades everywhere from his hometown newspaper to CNBC.
But VanderSloot is no Boy Scout, either.
More than 20 years ago, he dumped thousands of dollars into a campaign to intimidate Idaho Public Television from broadcasting a program about teaching the children of gay parents.
He doesn’t mind going negative. In 2000, he spent $50,000 in a last-minute, successful smear campaign against then-Idaho Supreme Court Justice Cathy Silak. In 2006, he invested $15,000 to oust an eastern Idaho judge he didn’t like. And in 2010, VanderSloot and his wife, Belinda, allocated $42,000 to make sure then-2nd District Court Judge John Bradbury did not win a seat on Idaho’s Supreme Court. Had it not been for then-Secretary of State Ben Ysursa’s work to divulge them, however, VanderSloot’s efforts against Bradbury might have remained obscure.
When Idaho’s campaign finance limits appeared to get in his way in 2002, VanderSloot exploited a loophole in order to distribute $35,000 toward then-GOP attorney general candidate Lawrence Wasden and another $18,000 to undermine the prospects of Wasden’s Democratic opponent, Keith Roark. In response, Idaho plugged the loophole.
In 2008, the VanderSloots ponied up $100,000 to help pass Proposition 8 in California, a brief attempt to outlaw same-sex marriage in that state.
There are those who say VanderSloot has turned a corner and was sincere when he told CNBC: “I’ve got the resources and have been looking for good ways to use them to help folks.” Clearly, a $500,000 legal defense fund will keep the medical debt collectors at bay.
Then again, this may be nothing more than a political grudge match between a heavyweight with deep pockets and a pair of ambitious GOP apparatchiks.
So grab your popcorn.
Take your seats.
And enjoy the show. — M.T.