Voters will have another chance to fill scandal-tinged position

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Sacramento Bee

California voters were assured in 1988 that if they made the state insurance commissioner’s office an elective one, rather than an arm of the governor’s administration, they would be making the regulator a servant of the people, rather than a toady for the insurance industry.

It hasn’t exactly worked out as promoters of the successful 1988 initiative – consumer activists and personal injury attorneys, primarily – told Californians it would. California has had two elected commissioners so far and both have been haunted by scandals.

The first, Democrat John Garamendi, became enmeshed in the single worst insurance company failure in American history, the collapse, seizure and eventual sale of Executive Life Insurance Co., which had invested heavily in Michael Milken’s junk bonds. Garamendi took over the company shortly after becoming commissioner in 1991 and later sold it to a group of French investors. But, years later it emerged that the French were fronts for a bank controlled by the French government – a violation of American investment laws – and the junk bond portfolio turned out to be worth billions of dollars more than the price Garamendi accepted. The fallout from the Executive Life debacle continues, with lawsuits, criminal investigations and allegations by angry policyholders and annuitants that Garamendi failed to protect their interests.

Garamendi gave up the position after one term and made an unsuccessful run for governor in 1994. His successor, Republican Chuck Quackenbush, was elected and then re-elected in 1998 with insurance industry support. But he was driven from office a couple of years ago by revelations concerning his less than diligent handling of Northridge earthquake claims and his pressure on insurers for money that he used for a series of television commercials and other programs aimed at enhancing his political image.

Since Quackenbush departed (he now lives in Hawaii), the insurance commissioner has been an interim appointee, former judge Harry Low. This year, however, voters will get another chance to fill the office, and it’s highly likely that the next commissioner will be one of three politicians vying for the Democratic nomination in the March 5 primary, since the three Republicans are little-known and ill-financed.

Certainly the major players in insurance politics are assuming that the three Democrats are the only players and the Democratic primary is the only game that counts.

Insurance companies are showering money on Assemblyman Tom Calderon, D-Montebello, so far accounting for at least half of his $1.6 million. The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, the folks who championed the 1988 ballot measure in the first place, complained Monday about Calderon’s heavy industry support. Its executive director, Jamie Court, displayed what he called a “Quack-o-Meter” to reporters and said the industry is trying to buy its way into influence again.

What Court didn’t mention, however, is that former Assemblyman Tom Umberg is just as clearly the favorite candidate of personal injury attorneys, who also have a big stake in insurance commissioner decisions. The Consumer Attorneys of California, the trial lawyer lobby, is busily gathering money for Umberg, who has taken out $1.5 million in loans to jump-start his campaign.

The third candidate is Garamendi, who is trying to stage a political comeback and whose fundraising appears to tap into his personal base, a broad array of business and labor groups, but doesn’t include insurers – who disliked his reign a decade ago – or more than a handful of attorneys.

The First Executive scandal could be a problem for Garamendi, if either of his rivals decides to dwell on it. But Garamendi has already prepared his defense – that he, too, was victimized by French misrepresentations, that all but a handful of policyholders were repaid, and that the price he obtained by bidding was fair under the circumstances.

At the moment, with less than two months remaining, Garamendi appears to be the favorite because of the short campaign season and his much-higher name identification. But given the short but sorry history of the office, one wonders why anyone would want it.


FTCR note: The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights does not take any position on candidates for any elected office and does not promote or oppose the election of any candidate for California Insurance Commissioner.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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