COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Herschel Walker, the football legend and leading Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, often boasts of his work helping service members and veterans struggling with mental health.
In interviews and campaign appearances, the former Dallas Cowboy and Heisman Trophy winner takes credit for founding, co-founding and sometimes operating a program called Patriot Support. The program, he says, has taken him to military bases all over the world.
“About 15 years ago, I started a program called Patriot Support,” Walker said in an interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt last October. “People need to know I started a military program, a military program that treats (thousands) of soldiers a year,” he told Savannah TV station WTGS in February.
But corporate documents, court records and Senate disclosures reviewed by The Associated Press tell a more complicated story. Together they present a portrait of a celebrity spokesman who overstated his role in a for-profit program that is alleged to have preyed upon veterans and service members while defrauding the government.
The revelation marks the latest example of a far more complex reality that lies beneath the carefully curated autobiography Walker has pitched to voters.
Walker's campaign would not make him available for an interview.
“So let me get this straight — you are demonizing Herschel for being the face of an organization for 14 years that has helped tens of thousands of soldiers suffering from mental illness," Walker spokeswoman Mallory Blount said in an emailed statement that also criticized the media.
At a campaign stop Saturday, Walker said the allegations against the program were a “concern” but added that he wasn't sure they were true. Then he changed the subject.
“I’m winning this election. People know I’m winning it," Walker told reporters.
Even before entering the race, Walker drew attention for his past mental health struggles, as well as allegations that he threatened his ex-wife's life. He's dramatically inflated his record as a businessman, as the AP previously reported. And his claim that he graduated at the top of his class from the University of Georgia, where he led the Bulldogs to a 1980 championship, was also untrue. He didn’t graduate, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported.
Political candidates often gild their story and, so far, in the race for the Republican Senate nomination with the backing of former President Donald Trump, Walker’s troubled background, falsehoods and contradictions have not carried a price. But if he wins Tuesday's primary, in which he holds a dominating lead, Democrats are likely to highlight unflattering parts of his story in what is shaping up as one of the fiercest fall contests, with control of the U.S. Senate in the balance.
“Walker has a troubled record, much of which Republicans have already been sounding the alarm on," said J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, a campaign arm for Senate Democrats that pays for millions of dollars in attack ads. “A lot of the discussion on his record will carry over into the general election because voters deserve to know the truth.”
Well before his candidacy, Walker received plaudits for his work with Patriot Support. His visits to bases were touted in military press releases. And in 2014, as a celebrity contestant on a Food Network game show, Walker won a $50,000 prize to donate to his charity of choice, Patriot Support.
But Patriot Support is not a charity. It's a for-profit program specifically marketed to veterans that is offered by Universal Health Services, one of the largest hospital chains in the U.S. Walker wasn't the program's founder, either. It was created 11 years before Universal Health Services says it hired Walker as a spokesman, which paid him a salary of $331,000 last year.
And the $50,000 prize he earned from the Food Network didn't go to Patriot Support, but was instead donated to a Paralympic Veterans program in Patriot Support's name.
Court documents, meanwhile, offer a far more troubling picture of its care for veterans and service members.
A sprawling civil case brought against Universal Health Services by the the Department of Justice and nearly two dozen states alleges that Patriot Support was part of a broader effort by the company to defraud the government.
Prosecutors allege Universal Health Services and its affiliates aggressively pushed those with government-sponsored insurance into inpatient mental health care to drive revenue. That's because, unlike typical private insurers, government plans do not limit the duration of hospital stays for psychiatric care so long as specific criteria are met, making such patients more profitable, the government alleged.
To achieve this end, the company pushed staff at its mental health facilities to misdiagnose patients and falsify documents in order to hospitalize those who did not require it, according to court records. In other cases, they failed to discharge those who no longer needed hospitalization, according to the DOJ.
A lengthy 2016 investigation by the website BuzzFeed included interviews with former patients, including a veteran, who said they went to Universal Health Services seeking a consultation or counseling only to find themselves held in inpatient care, sometimes against their will.
Veterans and service members were a specific focus, according to court documents.
The company hired “military liaisons” to visit bases and develop relationships with military medical staff, treatment facility commanders and clinicians, court documents state.
“To maximize the flow of military patients, UHS engaged in an aggressive campaign ... to market its ‘Patriot Support program,'” a company whistleblower who ran the admissions program at a Utah hospital stated in a 2014 court document.
As a celebrity spokesman, Walker was part of the public relations blitz.
Universal Health Services reached a $122 million settlement in 2020 with the Department of Justice and the coalition of states. The company denies government’s allegations and said it agreed to the settlement to “avoid the continuing costs and uncertainty of continued litigation.”
Jane Crawford, a spokeswoman for the company, also denied the whistleblower’s account of an aggressive marketing campaign to draw service members into the company’s Patriot Support program. She also said some of the alleged conduct occurred before Universal Health Services purchased a group of hospitals operated by Ascend Health in 2012. Ascend Health ran a similar veterans’ program called Freedom Care, which Walker was also a spokesman for.
Though Walker touts his role with Patriot Support on the campaign trail, there's no suggestion he was directly involved in any wrongdoing at the hospitals. The company declined to renew his contract this year and a detailed biography of Walker was removed from the Patriot Support website.
“Herschel Walker served as national spokesperson for our Anti-Stigma campaign from 2010 to 2021," Crawford, the company spokeswoman, said in a statement. “As a mental health advocate, Mr. Walker shared his personal journey to raise awareness and encourage others to seek help. He is no longer contracted with Universal Health Services.”
Walker acknowledged on Saturday that he didn’t create Patriot Support. But he told reporters that he did start Ascend Health’s Freedom Care program in 2007.
But government filings show Freedom Care was developed by the company in 2006, a year before Walker claimed to have created it. Meanwhile, an archived company website lists Walker as a spokesman. And a U.S. military news release about the program says Walker didn’t join until 2008 — two years after it was developed.
Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican strategist who founded his company in Georgia, said Walker is “like a God” in the state and doubted whether anything would hurt his chances in a general election contest with Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is Georgia’s first Black senator.
“There are still kids who will wear Herschel Walker's football jerseys some 40 years after he played for the University of Georgia. So negative information will be heard with a heavy dose of skepticism,” Ayres said. “That doesn’t mean that some allegations won’t penetrate somewhat, but they won’t do anywhere near as much damage as to a normal candidate.”
Brian Slodysko And Jeff Amy, The Associated Press