WASHINGTON — Richard Carmona arrived in Washington a political novice in 2002 and left four years later scarred and frustrated. He didn't go quietly.
A year after his term as the nation's 17th surgeon general, the one-time $500 campaign donor to President George W. Bush turned on the administration, telling Congress that mid-level GOP appointees orchestrated his appearances for political gain and muzzled him on hot-button issues like stem cell research and sex education.
As investigators for a Democratic-controlled House committee looked into his allegations back then, one of those appointees returned the criticism, accusing Carmona of taking excessive trips on the taxpayers' dime to his homes in Arizona and California.
The brouhaha is being refought now that Carmona, running as a Democrat, is given a chance of taking away a Senate seat Republicans have held for almost two decades.
Carmona's old nemesis, Cristina Beato, then his boss as acting assistant secretary in the Health and Human Services Department, has re-emerged in the form of a 97-page transcript of a 2007 interview she gave investigators for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Carmona's testimony months earlier had helped the panel's chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., make his party's case that the Bush administration was politicizing science. It also burnished Carmona's credentials with Democrats just two years after Republicans had tried to get him to run for governor of Arizona.
Eventually Democrats, including President Barack Obama, courted Carmona to run on their side. His biography is a rags-to-riches tale: a Hispanic who grew up in New York City, a Vietnam War medic with two Purple Hearts, a deputy sheriff as well as a doctor.
If anyone could pull off an upset in Arizona and give Democrats the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Jon Kyl, it might be Carmona. Until he entered the race last November, both parties looked upon six-term Republican Rep. Jeff Flake as the overwhelming favorite to succeed Kyl. Now Flake has to beat back a challenge from wealthy Mesa businessman Wil Cardon in the state's Republican primary on Aug. 28.
Carmona's Senate campaign highlights his testimony before Waxman's committee, proclaiming that he returned to Tucson "knowing he stood up and did the right thing."
His critics have brought in Beato, now chief medical officer for Ernst & Young consultants. In her 2007 interview with the House investigators, Beato rejected Carmona's allegations. She accused him of lying and said he was "unethical" for billing the government for travel back to Arizona and to San Diego, where he had a second home.
"In the meantime, we had big public health groups that didn't seem to be getting attention," she told the investigators. "We had other states that were not getting attention."
Carmona's campaign wouldn't make him available to answer questions raised by Beato.
Andy Barr, a campaign spokesman, said Carmona repaid the government about $3,500 for travel expenses involving various events. In one case, Barr said, Carmona attended an event in Tucson honoring him after political handlers canceled a coinciding appearance at a global AIDS conference at the University of Arizona because of potential controversy. Carmona later reimbursed the government for that trip.
Barr said Carmona did not knowingly do anything wrong. He said support staff made mistakes in processing some of his travel vouchers and gave Carmona incorrect guidance.
"It comes as no surprise that old, unsubstantiated, partisan attacks get recycled in an election year, but this allegation remains as baseless as ever," Barr said. "Dr. Carmona has always put solving problems above partisan politics, and that was not always appreciated by a very small number of political staffers in the Bush administration."
Emails that The Associated Press obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reinforce that there were tensions within HHS about where Carmona should go and what groups he should address.
One email noted that Carmona made 19 trips in the first six months after taking office, 12 of them with stops in Arizona, San Diego or both. "I think we have a real problem here," HHS employee Hal Thompson wrote.
A review of newspaper clippings from Tucson and San Diego show that then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson accompanied Carmona on a trip to Tucson just weeks after his Aug. 5, 2002, swearing-in. The trip was designed to promote the largest bioterror drill in the U.S., which was to occur some three months later. Carmona returned about one month later to give a speech at a trauma conference.
Carmona returned in October to announce $1.1 million in drug prevention grants for Arizona, in November for the bioterror drill itself and in December as the keynote speaker at a commencement ceremony at the University of Arizona. In January 2003 Carmona spoke in San Diego about health concerns of the nation's growing Latino population.
In July 2003, a consultant to Thompson wrote an email saying he was "not trying to give Rich a rough time" about travel and acknowledged that the trips were a legal use of taxpayer dollars.
"To my mind, the questions are much simpler. How does it fit with the Pres. and Sec's agenda. What value does the ADMINISTRATION gain? What result is bettered?" said the consultant, Bill Turenne.
Turenne also complained in 2004 when Carmona accepted invitations to speak at two events in Arizona, one to receive an award for exemplary "service before self."
"How many self-congratulation celebrations," Turenne wrote. "No sign of the President's agenda."
Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu, a deputy surgeon general, said Carmona's trips to the West were closely scrutinized by a committee tasked with vetting them.
"I do not believe he was cheating taxpayers. If anything, I worked with Dr. Carmona for four years as his deputy and my impression of him was that he was ethical," Moritsugu said.
Robert Williams, who served as Carmona's chief of staff, said the surgeon general did not make any travel without approval from Beato or a higher-ranking authority. He said the tensions between Beato and Carmona arose because his position as surgeon general was akin to being a "rock star" in health circles.
"I think there was some professional jealousy there on her part," Williams said.
Beato told The Associated Press that she stands by her statements to congressional investigators. She was nominated by Bush in the summer of 2003 to serve as assistant secretary for health. The Senate declined to take up her nomination after Democrats questioned her resume.