Carson defends relationship with dentist convicted of fraud

In this photo taken Dec. 1, 2005, Dr. Ben Carson, center, flanked by Dr. Al Costa, right, and then Pittsburgh Steelers running back, Jerome Bettis pose at the The Pittsburgh Carson Scholars Fund 2nd Annual Charity Auction Cocktail Event in Pittsburgh. Republican presidential contender Carson has maintained a business relationship with Costa, a close friend convicted of defrauding insurance companies and testified on his behalf, even as the candidate has called for such crimes to be punished harshly. (Andy Starnes/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — At a campaign stop in South Carolina on Friday, presidential candidate Ben Carson defended his continuing business relationship with a friend convicted of defrauding insurance companies.

The Republican said he has no regrets over helping Alfonso A. Costa, a Pittsburgh dentist and wealthy real estate developer, avoid prison time.

“I can tell you that there’s a reason he’s my closest friend,” Carson said. “I know his heart.”

The Associated Press reported Thursday that Carson has invested millions of dollars in real estate deals through a firm run by Costa, whose dentistry license was revoked following his conviction. Carson’s campaign has refused to answer questions about the extent of his business ties with the developer, and the candidate did not directly address that issue in his comments Friday.

According to required financial disclosure forms Carson filed earlier this year, the retired neurosurgeon and his wife make between $200,000 and $2 million a year from those real estate investments.

Carson appeared as a character witness at the 2008 sentencing hearing for Costa, who pleaded guilty to health care fraud. Though the felony charge carries a recommended sentence of up to 10 years, the judge sentenced Costa to a single year of house arrest at his suburban mansion.

“I don’t think that case needs to be re-litigated in public,” Carson said. “The penalty has been assessed. It’s been served. Whether it’s just or not doesn’t really matter.”

In his 2013 book “America the Beautiful,” Carson called for severe penalties for those convicted of health care fraud, including at least a decade in prison and “the loss of all of one’s personal possessions.”

Costa has served on the board of Carson’s charity, the Carson Scholars Fund, and continues to lead the charity’s fundraising efforts in the Pittsburgh area to provide $1,000 college scholarships to children in need.

The developer also uses his ties to Carson to help promote his real estate business, including an online testimonial from the candidate about the beauty of a resort Costa owns on the southern Italian coast.

Carson conceded that it could appear hypocritical for him to call for harsh sentences for others while defending his friend convicted of fraud.

“I recognize that it would appear that way on the surface,” Carson said, adding that Costa is “one of the most honest people” he knows.

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