Now that the president of Florida’s last-resort windstorm insurer, Citizens, has admitted that it was a “dumb decision” to fire the company’s internal watchdogs the day it did in October, it’s time for the both the governor and the Legislature to take a long, hard look at how the company is being managed and what’s behind these firings.
At a board meeting last week, President Barry Gilway did not go as far as reversing the company’s ill-considered move, but he expressed misgivings over the decision. “The bad way was how we did it,” he said.
Even Chairman Carlos Lacasa conceded that Citizens needs to “win back the credibility of the company in the eyes of the company” — and said he was determined to make that happen.
One way to do that is to stop shooting the messenger.
The four-member Office of Corporate Integrity was dismantled two months ago and its employees terminated with confidentiality agreements. Then, in November, The Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reported that the recently fired employees had issued a shocking report that found evidence of favoritism, improper compensation and poorly handled investigations.
The draft report involved a host of scandalous allegations, including questionable severance packages, sexual impropriety and falsified documents. It was widely covered in the Florida press, but although both Mr. Gilway and Mr. Lacasa admitted the company could do better, they directed their strongest comments at the news media itself, with Mr. Gilway using words like “absurd,” “pathetic,” and “shameful” to describe the media’s coverage.
Actually, that same language could be used more appropriately to describe the company’s own performance. The company’s decision to dismantle the Office of Corporate Integrity creates the appearance of an effort to sweep a big scandal under the rug. The company has assumed a defensive posture in response to the allegations, but no explanation to date has been satisfactory.
There are other issues roiling the company, as well, including reports of exorbitant corporate travel expenses and a plan to transfer $350 million to private insurance companies in low-interest, forgivable loans.
At a hearing in Tallahassee this week, the giveaway plan came under fire from Miami Rep. Frank Artiles, who called it a “corporate bailout” designed to help three allied companies that have sought to benefit from the program. Another lawmaker, State Rep. John Wood, R-Haines City, called the program “totally frivolous.”
All of this cries out for a top-to-bottom review of Citizens.
It would include hearing from the fired investigators and finding out why a confidentiality agreement was required. And asking why they think they were fired.
It would include asking questions about why $750,000 in severance pay was handed out to dismissed employees involved in the actual allegations of misconduct.
It would include a look at Citizens’ travel policies for executives and what guidelines, if any, restrict their expenditures.
And it would include the transfer of policies to private companies, the so-called incentive plan, which takes money out of the company’s $6 billion surplus — a source of ready cash to pay claims if and when a storm hits.
Some 1.4 million property owners rely on Citizens to manage their windstorm insurance. Ultimately, it’s up to Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers to make sure these scandals come to an end.