FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) _ Three Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. executives charged with overbilling Medicare asked a judge to remove himself from the case Thursday after he was allegedly seen dining with the lead prosecutor.

Lawyers for Robert Whiteside, Jay Jarrell and Michael Neeb argued Thursday that Judge Lee P. Gagliardi should not preside at a pretrial hearing next week because he was heard discussing an unrelated case with Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Haley.

The federal government and several states are investigating Columbia, the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, for alleged overbilling of the government's Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs.

Both Gagliardi and Haley were at the time involved in the other case as judge and prosecutor. The Columbia executives' lawyers noted that the judge was removed from that case and said he also should be taken off the Columbia case.

``We have the same United States Attorney's Office, the same prosecutor and the same judge,'' the attorneys said.

Gagliardi and Haley were not immediately available for comment.

Gagliardi, a senior judge from Southern District of New York, each year handles casework at the understaffed federal court in Fort Myers, from October through April.

The Columbia executives' case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew of Tampa, but Gagliardi was assigned to preside at a pretrial status hearing on Nov. 7 in Fort Myers.

A grand jury in June indicted Whiteside, 47, a senior reimbursement official at Nashville-based Columbia's headquarters; Jarrell, 42, head of the hospital chain's southwest Florida division; and Neeb, 35, chief financial officer of Columbia's northern Florida operations.

All three pleaded innocent to charges they cheated the government's health insurance program for the elderly of more than $1.7 million by inflating costs.

According to a motion filed by defense lawyers seeking to recuse Gagliardi, he and Haley met ``secretly'' at a Naples-area restaurant, and a defense investigator ``overheard them discussing issues'' about the unrelated case.

While Gagliardi fought attempts to remove himself from the other trial, the appeals court later removed him, the defendants' motion said.

The attorneys for Jarrell, Neeb and Whiteside also asked that their case be transferred to Tampa for trial.