Insurance chief picks new counsel

Published on

San Jose Mercury News (California)

SACRAMENTO, CA — Republican State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has come under fire this year for hiring a former insurance industry lobbyist as one of his top legal aides. Wednesday, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and potential gubernatorial contender moved to blunt that criticism by announcing
he’s hired another attorney, this one with experience suing insurance companies.

Adam M. Cole, a partner in San Francisco-based corporate law firm Heller Ehrman, will fill the position of Poizner’s general counsel. While Cole’s firm has represented State Farm in lawsuits challenging Proposition 103 — California’s landmark law that regulates auto insurance rates — Cole said he was completely removed from that work. He said his work has focused on representing policyholders in claims against insurance companies.

“The general counsel has to be consumer-oriented” and Cole fits that role well, Poizner said.

Poizner introduced Cole — a Harvard Law School graduate and former Peace Corps volunteer who has taught insurance law at University of California-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall law school — to a small group of reporters summoned to his office. It was unusual for a statewide politician to announce a staff selection that way, and suggested that Poizner is eager to counter criticism that his office is forging too-close ties with the insurance industry.

Consumer groups raised those concerns earlier this year after Poizner hired a former industry lobbyist,

Bill Gausewitz, as his special counsel. Gausewitz since has come under scrutiny over accusations that he aided a group of insurers in a lawsuit in which the Department of Insurance was named as a defendant.

Harvey Rosenfield, a leading consumer rights advocate and author of Proposition 103, said he’s far from convinced that Cole’s hiring settles the bias concerns. He said Poizner, a multimillionaire who refused insurance-industry donations during his campaign, has broken his promise to have a true consumer advocate among his senior staff.

Noting that Cole represented businesses in claims against insurers, Rosenfield called Cole a “corporate lawyer” and said, “He’s not a consumer advocate.” Cole said he also had a number of cases representing individual policyholders.

Cole acknowledged that moving to government will mean a big pay cut; he will make about $165,000 a year. But after 17 years working for law firms, he thinks public service work will be more personally rewarding.

Cole, 46, denied that he plans to use the position as a springboard to an even more lucrative private-sector job. His predecessor left earlier this year for a job with Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co.

“I am not doing this for the money,” said Cole. “Nor am I doing this as a resume builder.”
Contact Mike Zapler at [email protected] or (916) 441-4603.

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