The public hearing had grown heated. Board members of Citizens Property Insurance were pushing a controversial plan that would force hundreds of thousands of Florida homeowners to pay more for less coverage.
“It’s not that we’re unsympathetic to the people that might be adversely affected by this,” Carlos Lacasa, the board chairman, sought to assure the gathering in Tampa.
That feel-your-pain moment came April 26, just three weeks after Lacasa and two Citizens executives returned from a business trip to London. Total tab: nearly $9,200, including two nights in a boutique hotel and a $234.91 dinner for three at an award-winning French restaurant.
It is just one example of how executives at the state-run company have been living large at the same time they are asking hard-pressed Florida property owners to pay more for insurance.
A Herald/Times review of hundreds of expense reports filed over the past three years shows that Citizens executives spent lavishly on themselves even as they pleaded poverty and raised rates by unprecedented amounts.
Traveling executives often stayed in luxury hotels costing as much as $600 a night even when less expensive accommodations were available nearby.
Free of spending caps imposed on rank-and-file employees, executives dined at swank restaurants and repeatedly spent more than $50 per person on such fare as rack of venison, sea bass and dungeness crab.
Citizens spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel just in Florida, including trips to board meetings held in four-star hotels.
Citizens’ chief financial officer broke company rules at least five times by using corporate credit cards to pay for alcoholic beverages and personal expenses.
Just how much have Citizens’ top executives spent on travel and meals in the past three years? Even company accountants aren’t sure.
That’s because employees sometimes charge expenses to other employees’ corporate cards or have hotels bill Citizens directly. In the first half of this year, Florida hotels direct-billed Citizens $140,000 — charges that don’t appear on any employee’s expense forms.
The company’s high travel costs came to light this spring when the Herald/Times reported that Tom Grady, Citizens interim president, spent nearly $13,000 on travel in just three months. He lost the permanent job, leaving the company in June with bills for a car service, business-class airfare and upscale hotel stays.
Lacasa, while calling for the new president to look “very, very carefully’’ at travel expenses, said the company has saved millions of dollars because of relationships built by Citizens executives meeting with investors and other insurers.
“These transactions are very personal,’’ Lacasa said. “You can’t convey this in a memo, you have to convey it across a table.’’
But the Herald/Times found many expenses for which the only people at the table were Citizens executives.
Senior managers dined alone or with each other at company expense. Dan Sumner, the general counsel, spent $75.80 for his own meal at Tampa’s famous Bern’s Steak House in May. His expense report lists no one else at the dinner. Sumner and former Citizens President Scott Wallace enjoyed numerous meals together on Citizens’ tab, including a repast at Ocean Prime in Orlando that cost $147.