Low sworn in as state insurance commissioner

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Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Insurance Commissioner Harry Low took the oath of office Monday, promising to restore public trust in the position his predecessor left under threat of impeachment.

Gov. Gray Davis appointed Low, a retired appeals court judge, to head the Insurance Department after Chuck Quackenbush resigned this summer.

Quackenbush, an elected Republican under investigation by two legislative committees, was accused of using at least $6 million from insurer settlements on TV ads and other spending to benefit himself politically.

“Our goal is to make California’s insurance commission the best of any in this nation,” Low said. “The public will be closely monitoring our work and I’m committed to making our work as open and responsive to the public as possible.”

Low was sworn in by state Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk in a brief ceremony held in a conference room here. About 150 people attended, including lawmakers, judges, friends and family.

Davis called Low a “distinguished jurist with a brilliant mind and a balanced approach.”

“He has dedicated his entire life to public service, not to political ambition,” Davis said in a written statement. “I believe he will focus the office of the Insurance Commissioner on its fundamental mission of protecting consumers.”

Low will serve the remaining two years of Quackenbush‘s second, four-year term. He has said he has not ruled out running for the office in 2002.

At the heart of the Quackenbush scandal was the California Research and Assistance Fund, created with about $12 million from insurers accused of mishandling claims filed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Quackenbush let a half-dozen insurers avoid up to $3 billion in potential penalties by giving to the fund. It was created to fund earthquake research and consumer aid, but Quackenbush acknowledged none of the $6 million CRAF spent went to either purpose.

Quackenbush resigned in late June, prompting lawmakers to drop their investigations. He has denied wrongdoing.

State and federal prosecutors continue investigating.

Low, 69, heard a wide array of insurance cases as a municipal and superior court judge and as an appeals court justice in San Francisco before retiring eight years ago. Since then, he has mediated insurance disputes.

Low, a Democrat, is the highest-ranking Asian-American in state government.

Sitting four rows back at the ceremony, whistle-blower Cindy Ossias dabbed her eyes with a tissue.

Ossias, an attorney for the department, leaked confidential documents on Northridge claims-handling that prompted legislative investigations of Quackenbush.

“It’s really emotional for me,” she said. “I’m still very worried because there are a lot of Quackenbush people still there and I don’t know how much hostility there will be there. I really hope Justice Low listens to the rank-and-file.”

Davis is considering whether to sign several measures prompted by the scandal. They would:

— Give many property owners who say their insurance companies failed to compensate them for damage from the massive quake another year to file claims, starting Jan. 1.

— Require that consumers’ needs receive top priority when the commissioner and an insurer agree to settle unfair business practices accusations.

— Give the public access to now-confidential audits of insurance companies’ business practices and bar the commissioner from appearing in ads paid for with settlement money.

The bill allowing access to the insurance company audits, called market conduct exams, was rushed through and could have some legal problems, Low said in an interview.

Jerry Davies, spokesman for the Personal Insurance Federation of California, said Low has a reputation for fairness and for deliberating complicated cases carefully.

“There will be some key issues we’d like to discuss with him that obviously have to do with the legislation that’s pending. We know we will get a fair hearing,” Davies said.

Consumer groups also want Low’s attention, said Doug Heller, consumer advocate with California for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

“What California consumers need now is someone whose going to fight for them, who will stand up for the consumers in the face of unscrupulous insurance companies,” Heller said. “But it’s not just a cleanup of the department that we want from Justice Low, but a reorientation of the department toward consumers.”

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