State insurance commissioner reported $83,000 in returned contributions dating back to 2013
By Jeff McDonald, THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
July 31, 2019
California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara accepted tens of thousands of dollars in additional political contributions from insurers than was previously known, according to a state-mandated campaign disclosure released Wednesday.
The Ricardo Lara for Insurance Commissioner 2022 committee reported that it refunded $83,000 in donations during the six months ending on June 30. More than $13,000 of that apparently was contributed in 2013, when Lara was a state senator from Bell Gardens.
Lara was elected state insurance commissioner in November after pledging not to accept campaign funds from insurance companies. Recently he decided to return some $54,000 from insurance executives or their spouses after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported those donations in early July.
The commissioner also said in the wake of that report that he would no longer serve as his own campaign treasurer and told reporters last week that he has hired someone for the position.
The 45-page filing submitted to the California Secretary of State by his reelection committee still lists Lara as his own campaign treasurer. Among other responsibilities, campaign treasurers generally are responsible for vetting donors to avoid possible conflicts of interest.
Richard Rios, who Wednesday night answered questions via email on behalf of Lara, said Lara transferred leftover funds from this 2016 state senate campaign to his current reelection campaign. By law he was required to disclose the contributions that came from insurers, even though he received them in 2013, Rios said in an email.
“He cannot travel back in time, however, he has refunded those contributions retroactively to remain consistent with his pledge of not accepting insurance donations,” Rios wrote.
Consumer advocates and newspaper editorial boards across California have questioned Lara’s decisions in light of the contribution controversy.
“It looks like he’s trying to not get burned again by transferring any money he received from insurance companies in the past,” said Carmen Balber of Consumer Watchdog, a Los Angeles advocacy group whose 1988 ballot measure created the elected insurance commissioner.
“The question is why did he need to transfer those funds into his 2022 reelection committee in the first place?” she asked. “So returning it now is belated.”
Balber also criticized Lara for not reporting a new campaign treasurer.
Lara reported returning donations from insurance executives and others tied to Applied Underwriters, a Nebraska workers’ compensation firm that is facing dozens of complaints from California employers who bought troubled policies.
Lara’s office intervened in several cases against Applied Underwriters to benefit the insurer before he announced he would recuse himself from further decisions related to the donors, including a pending sale of Applied Underwriters that requires Department of Insurance approval, the Union-Tribune reported.
He also returned almost $8,000 donated by a Texas homemaker who shares a home address with Larry Graber of Independence Holding Co., an insurance conglomerate that markets pet insurance policies among its many products.
The insurance commissioner’s office sponsored a bill earlier this year that could make it more difficult for consumers who purchased pet insurance to collect benefits for their sick dogs and cats.
Lara also refunded $15,500 donated in April to his 2022 reelection committee by Massachusetts lawyer Jeffrey Thorn. The firm Thorn works for specializes in class-action lawsuits against insurance companies and other corporations, according to its website.
The filing Wednesday also shows Lara returning smaller donations from well-known insurers which he received while he served as a state senator.
He returned $7,200 he received in 2013 from Blue Shield of California, the disclosure states. He also rebated a $2,000 contribution by U.S. Healthworks and $1,000 each from Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. and Access Dental Plan the same year.
The state insurance commissioner also returned a $2,000 donation he accepted in 2013 from Caremark Rx, a prescription benefit management subsidiary of the company that operates CVS pharmacies.
Lara set up his 2022 reelection committee within days of being sworn in early this year and began accepting contributions shortly thereafter.
In total, he reported more than $145,000 in contributions and about $55,000 in spending between January and June. The committee reported an ending cash balance of more than $96,000 and $5,000 in outstanding debts.
Most of the contributions reported Wednesday came from political action committees, labor unions, casino interests and poker clubs.