In my opinion | Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen: This Florida citizen outraged by Citizens insurance

Rick Scott campaigned for governor on the promise of running Florida like a big business, but the one big business that Florida actually runs is out of control.

Citizens Property Insurance Corp. was created a decade ago, supposedly to help residents afford hurricane coverage for their homes. With 1.3 million policyholders, Citizens is the state’s largest insurer of property.

And it’s been managed about as carefully as amateur night at your local strip joint. In fact, that’s where one happy Citizens worker liked to use his company credit card.

Last year Citizens jacked up its rates almost 11 percent, and now it wants legislative approval to go much, much higher.

The cost of insuring a home already is one of the heaviest financial loads carried by Florida families. If you wonder what happens to all the hefty premiums, an investigative series by the Herald and the Tampa Bay Times presents an enlightening snapshot.

Basically, the money’s flying all over the place.

According to the state’s chief inspector, Citizens’ employees and some board members somehow piled up $1.3 million in travel expenses between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 last year.

The tab includes a $633-a-night hotel stay in Bermuda for the company Chief Financial Officer Sharon Binnun, as well as expensive visits to Switzerland and London. She jetted through a total of four countries and racked up $35,000 in charges.

Citizens customers (and I’m one of them) are rightfully curious about the pretense upon which a Florida insurance executive would travel to such exotic places and claim it as a business trip.

Meanwhile, senior managers who weren’t flying anywhere still got reimbursed on more than 50 occasions for meals in their own hometowns. That’s a sweet deal for them, but a sour one for policy holders and taxpayers who bailed out the company after the last bad storm season.

Despite the swelling scandal about overspending at Citizens, the current president, Barry Gilway, handed out fat raises to loyal executives including Binnun, his passport-flashing CFO.

Scott has expressed dismay over the unseemly pay hikes raises and exorbitant travel, and wants to ban board members from international jaunts. His long view is to shrink Citizens and attract other big insurance firms into Florida as competition, which he says will lead to lower premiums.

Stop laughing. The man really said that.

Citizens was devised as a choice of last resort because real insurance companies were bailing out of the state. They didn’t want to pay out any more hurricane claims.

To now suggest that they’re eager to come back to the market and actually lower their rates confirms that the governor is living in some weird, parallel universe. He’s not alone — lawmakers are pushing the same idea, which will send premiums through the roof.

The problem with Citizens is not that it’s backed by the state. The problem is that Tallahassee isn’t paying attention to what the company’s doing.

Start with the big stuff — $604 million in outside contracts with private vendors, often in the absence of bidding. Or the $2.5 million that Citizens “accidentally” overpaid to another insurance company (the funds were discovered by a state auditor and recouped).

On a smaller scale, one enterprising underwriter used the Citizens mailroom and computers to promote her line of female sex toys — battery-operated entertainment for those long hurricane power outages.

The underwriter was eventually fired, though other workers who ran side businesses on company time were not. An investigation by Citizens’ own Office of Corporate Integrity showed that the company had spent more than $2.4 million hiring lawyers to investigate various allegations of internal misconduct.

More unsettling: Citizens paid out about $750,000 in severance to employees, many of whom had been caught doing wrong. One executive who allegedly had an affair with a co-worker received a total bye-bye package of $120,000.

Soon after its Office of Corporate Integrity began to reveal misspending and misdeeds at the top level, Citizens responded decisively. It fired the four investigators and disbanded the Office of Corporate Integrity.

Even Rick Scott says there might be something fishy about that.

Under pressure, Citizens last week made public a list of 474 internal complaints that ran the gamut from workplace pornography to fraud, theft and discrimination.

The company’s Internal Auditor, Joe Martins, says Citizens did a sterling job of handling all these cases. He’s also the same stiff who abolished the Office of Corporate Integrity.

Clearly the leadership of Citizens has forgotten who it’s working for, and where its billions in cash are flowing from — the people of Florida.

They might not get to vote on their insurance company, but they do get to vote for their governor and their legislators. Keep raising the premiums, and watch for a storm in November.

Read more Carl Hiaasen stories from the Miami Herald

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