Ricardo Lara, a San Diego State graduate, also announced he will hire a campaign treasurer instead of doing the job himself

By Jeff McDonald, THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE

July 8, 2019

https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/watchdog/story/2019-07-08/ins…

California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said Monday that he would return tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions he accepted from insurance industry executives.

The turnaround came hours after The San Diego Union-Tribune disclosed the political donations and a Los Angeles consumer group publicly called on the insurance commissioner to return the donations.

“I pledged not to accept insurance money during my campaign, and it is a pledge I intend to keep,” Lara said. “I appreciate The San Diego Union-Tribune bringing this to my attention.”

The statement also said Lara would no longer serve as his own campaign treasurer -- a job that traditionally calls for vetting donors to make sure they do not have business pending before the regulatory body.

Lara said he would appoint someone to the job, but did not say when.

The Union-Tribune reported Monday that Lara set up a re-election campaign committee shortly after becoming the state’s eighth elected insurance commissioner, and quickly accepted more than $54,000 in donations from insurance industry executives and their spouses.

Consumer Watchdog, a public-interest advocacy group based in Los Angeles, issued a public request to Lara that he reject the insurance industry donations.

“Taking that money is a violation of the pledge you made to voters to not accept campaign contributions from the insurance industry,” said Carmen Balber, the Consumer Watchdog executive director.

Lara, who promised during his 2018 campaign that he would not solicit or accept campaign donations from people he would regulate, declined to explain the contributions discovered by the Union-Tribune during the newspaper’s review of his election filings.

Instead, he issued a statement saying he hoped voters would evaluate his performance as the California Department of Insurance commissioner, a position that oversees more than $310 billion in homeowner, workers’ compensation and other policies every year.

“I am proud of my record, and I hope to be judged by the public policy decisions I make as they affect injured workers and their families,” Lara’s statement last week said in its entirety.

Lara is a graduate of San Diego State University and the first openly gay statewide elected official in California history.

Last year, he reported $50,000 in donations from medical-malpractice and other insurers -- and pledged to give the money back after the contributions were criticized by consumer advocates and others, saying it was improper to accept campaign funds from people regulated by the insurance commissioner.

The Union-Tribune could find no evidence of the returned campaign funds on subsequent campaign filings. On Monday, Lara said he already had returned $6,000 of those funds.

The weekend report about the latest political contributions largely involved insurers who have an application pending before the Department of Insurance.

Stephen Acunto, a spokesman for Applied Underwriters, which is seeking an approval for a proposed sale, donated $15,500 to Lara in April. Acunto’s wife, Carole, contributed the same amount the same month, state campaign reports show.

The Acuntos did not respond to requests for comment about their donations.

Lara also accepted $15,500 from the wife of Carl DeBarbrie, a senior executive at Remo Insurance Co., which does business in the state of California. In a brief interview last week, DeBarbrie said he was aware of the donation and declined to comment further.

Also, Lara reported a $7,800 contribution from Darlene Graber, who was identified in campaign filings as a homemaker from Austin, Texas.

Graber shares an address with Larry Graber, a senior executive at International Holding Co., which owns several insurance interests across the country, according to public records in Texas, the Union-Tribune analysis of campaign disclosures showed.

Previous California insurance commissioners have traditionally shied away from accepting political contributions from insurance executives to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.

In 2000, former insurance commissioner Chuck Quackenbush resigned after disclosures that he had accepted money from insurance companies and favored those donors over ratepayers.

Lara did not respond to follow-up questions Monday about why he had not returned all of the donations he accepted from insurers last year or when he would complete the return of campaign funds he promised give back this week.


Jeff McDonald