By Jon Delano

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson has apparently had a long-term personal and business relationship with a man from Pittsburgh, Dr. Alfonso Costa, who was convicted of health care fraud in 2007.

Costa, a Morningside native who practiced dentistry in Oakland and Murrysville, was charged with padding bills to Highmark and six other companies 50 times for $44,000 in dental work never done.

Costa pled guilty, and in 2008, his friend Carson appeared in federal court in Pittsburgh to testify to Costa’s character, telling Judge Gary Lancaster, “We became friends about a decade ago because we discovered that we were so much alike and shared the same values.”

Costa — who could have been jailed — received three years’ probation, one year house arrest, and a fine.

The story has drawn national attention because the light sentence was just the opposite of what Carson advocated in his 2013 book, “America the Beautiful.”

In his book, Carson said perpetrators of health care fraud should receive stiff sentences, saying, “There would be some very stiff penalties for this kind of fraud, such as loss of one’s medical license for life, no less than 10 years in prison, and loss of all of one’s personal possessions.”

But sources tell KDKA the long-time relationship between Costa and Carson is deep.

Costa has raised money for the Carson Scholars Fund and was national vice president until he was charged with a felony.

Ben Carson calls Al Costa his “very best friend.”

Costa is now a multi-millionaire real estate developer and strong supporter the Carson Scholars Fund.

Every year Carson and Costa award scholarships to students in Pittsburgh and around the nation.

“It’s just amazing looking out over this crowd and seeing so many incredible young people,” Carson told young people in Pittsburgh on May 29.

“People want to do business with nice people,” said Costa to the same crowd.

Carson and Costa are business partners on some ventures, and Carson has stayed for free at Costa’s spectacular Italian villa, which Costa leases out to Hollywood stars like Barbra Streisand and Michael Keaton.

Carson was not the only celebrity to appear at Costa’s sentencing hearing.

So did Steelers great Jerome Bettis, whose charity has also received Costa’s support and with Costa has raised money for Carson’s charity.

So far, Carson has not commented on the contradiction in urging a lenient sentence for Costa but a harsher sentence for others.

But on Thursday he said he stood by Costa, adding, “I know his heart. I am proud to call him my friend. I have always and will continue to stand by him. That is what real friends do! ”

Obviously, Carson is loyal to his Pittsburgh friend and business partner.

How significant this issue becomes really depends on Carson’s opponents — and how they use the apparent contradiction in treatment of health care felons on the campaign trail.

No comment yet from Dr. Al Costa.

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