Louisiana Regulatory Scandal May Leave $1 Billion Bill With PM-Insurance Scandal-Glance
Sep. 05, 1993
NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The worst is probably over for Louisiana's scandal-ridden insurance industry, but years of a near-absence of regulation compounded by corruption could still cost the state as much as $1 billion.
One former state insurance commissioner is in prison and the commissioner he ousted on a ''reform'' campaign is due to report for a stay behind bars on Oct. 1. They are only two of 38 people convicted in recent years on federal insurance-related charges.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana Insurance Guaranty Association faces so many claims from 65 failed property and casualty companies that it has been paying only 30 cents on the dollar for nearly six months. LIGA recently agreed to resume full payments, but warned that its fund will be dry in October unless it borrows $130 million.
Other insurance guaranty associations have had problems. For instance, the Florida guarantee fund encountered difficulty after some property insurers could not pay off claims from Hurricane Andrew.
But Louisiana is in a class by itself.
''Obviously, there are little scandals along the way, but nothing comparable to this,'' said Dale Stephenson, head of the National Conference of Insurance Guaranty Funds. The group represents property and casualty funds in 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
There still yet may be more charges in the Louisiana insurance scandal.
''We still have people out there working insurance frauds,'' acting U.S. Attorney Robert Boitmann said.
Sherman Bernard, who served as the elected insurance commissioner from 1972 to 1988, was sentenced to 41 months in prison and fined $75,000 on Aug. 31 after he admitted extorting $60,000 in campaign contributions from five insurance companies that later failed.
Bernard was ousted from office by Doug Green, who pledged to reform Louisiana's insurance regulation. Instead, Green was sentenced to 25 years for his role in the biggest Louisiana insurance scandal - the collapse of Champion Insurance Co., which primarily wrote cheap insurance for high-risk drivers.
Champion's collapse in 1989 left behind at least $180 million in unpaid claims and sent the company's owners to prison. Testimony in Green's trial showed that Champion had illegally bankrolled virtually his entire campaign, to the tune of $1.9 million, after Bernard demanded a $10,000 campaign contribution from the company.
But Champion turned out to be only the beginning.
Scores of other companies failed and federal prosecutors alleged many had used inflated or bogus assets to make it appear they were solvent. Delivering audits to the state insurance department - thus avoiding mail fraud liability - was a common procedure until the last two years.
In another major case, Anglo American Insurance Co. owner Carlos Miro pleaded guilty to fraud charges. Prosecutors say he stole at least $17 million from his own company, which wrote workers compensation coverage.
Miro claimed that he hatched an unsuccessful scheme in 1987 to take over Louisiana's workers compensation market, with the help of Gov. Edwin Edwards. Edwards, who has not been charged in any of the cases, denied the allegation.
Federal prosecutors would not reveal specifics of the current round of investigations. Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown has said that a federal grand jury is looking into the business practices of the state's largest health insurer Blue Cross-Blue Shield.
Brown took regulatory action last month that forced the company to replace all but two board members. Health insurers are covered by a separate guaranty fund in Louisiana that is not affected by the collapse of property and casualty companies.
LIGA is funded by an assessment on insurance companies. But the full assessment allowed by law is now in effect - not enough to cover the entire disaster. Even if a $130 million bond sale is approved, LIGA will again run out of money in about a year, officials say.
Brown, who says as much as $1 billion will be needed to settle all the claims and related costs, said consumers already are paying the tab. Many of the collapsed companies wrote cheap auto insurance, thus driving out major companies, and allowing the remainder to select the best risks at higher rates.
Brown said the problem of outright regulatory corruption is over, although some companies still face serious financial woes.
''I think the sentencing of the second former commissioner is one of the final nails in the coffin of problems that Louisiana has had,'' Brown said. ''There are still lots of problems, but they are problems that don't have criminal overtones.''
Brown said that state is moving faster to deal with companies having financial problems that previously were allowed to drag on until it was too late.
''There has been some criticism that we are moving too quick and acting too tough. My response is: 'Isn't that refreshing?'''