Hue and cry grows over deal for Scott donor

Key House Republicans in the Florida Legislature have raised new questions about a unique $52 million deal between an upstart St. Petersburg insurance company and Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he had “serious concerns” about the Citizens deal on Friday, zeroing in on a provision that will allow Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance Company to cherry pick 60,000 insurance polices with no losses, leaving Citizens with a higher concentration of risk. The company also gets up to $52 million from Citizens surplus fund.

“Once again, Citizens did not provide a sufficient advanced briefing to the Legislature, and the proposal was hastily pushed through a sharply divided board.” Weatherford said.

The deal has created a political firestorm ever since the Herald/Times reported this week that Heritage donated $110,000 to Gov. Rick Scott, just two months before Citizens agreed to transfer $52 million to the new company, which opened for business nine months ago.

Scott’s office has said the governor did not influence Citizens board to act on behalf of his political contributor.

Also joining the chorus of critics over the deal was state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. He penned a letter to state Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty on Friday questioning whether Heritage had already violated a May 17 consent order from the Office of Insurance Regulation. Heritage has firmly denied the accusation.

Fasano alleged that Heritage had been contacting insurance agents and policyholders prior to May 23, when the company officially received approval from Citizens and state regulators. That would be a violation of the OIR’s consent order, Fasano said, citing a part of the agreement that bans Heritage from contacting “any potential policyholder, including sending communication regarding this depopulation” prior to the deal being signed.

Heritage firmly denies that it has been contacting policyholders, and said the company contacted agents last week as part of a standard procedure to alert them to an upcoming potential takeout. The company’s chairman, Bruce Lucas, said there was nothing untoward about that.

“We are required to publish a wish list,” of policies, he said. “We contact agents and say, ’In the future we attempt to do a depopulation’.”

The OIR did not respond to a request for comment.

Lucas said the company only began sending letters to homeowners on Friday, after receiving consent from OIR. Homeowners who do not opt out of the takeout within 30 days will be automatically shifted out of Citizens and into Heritage.

As evidence, Fasano presented a letter and email received by Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley with regards to a takeout offer from Heritage. A May 17 letter from Corley’s insurance agent informs him that Heritage has “selected” his policy for an “upcoming takeout.” The proposed takeout was approved by Citizens’ board of governors on Wednesday, with only three of eight board members supporting it. Two opposed and three others did not vote, allowing the proposal to carry 3-2.

Corley received an email response from a Heritage employee on May 22, prior to the board’s vote, saying that Heritage “offers a better policy” than Citizens.

Heritage has maintained that this was an “automated” message in response to Corley, and OIR general counsel Belinda Miller said she did not believe it violated the consent order’s ban on communicating with policyholders prior to approval of the takeout. Miller did not comment on the agent communication.

Fasano’s letter blasts the $52 million cash deal as a “blatant case of corporate welfare” and points out that Heritage’s CEO has run companies with several insurance violations in the past. Those violations include “failure to pay claim timely,” using unlicensed insurance professionals and making “misleading” advertisements.

“Do we really want an insurance executive whose takeout company has been fined for using unlicensed agents?” Fasano wrote.

Heritage said the CEO, Richard Widdicombe, resigned from People’s Trust Insurance in 2009 after noticing a slew of violations, and helped state regulators to investigate. The company was fined $150,000 and suspended by OIR.

Heritage’s lobbyist is Tom Gallagher, a former head of OIR who helped create Citizens.

Fasano and Weatherford are not the only Republicans criticizing Citizens over the deal.

Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, called it a “get rich” scheme and Scott’s chief of staff called the Citizens’ board “tone-deaf.”

Democrats also chimed in. Former state Senator Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, on Friday called on Scott to return the $110,000 donation, saying “the whole thing smells.”

The chairman of the Republican Party of Florida accused Gelber of attacking Scott on behalf of former Gov. Charlie Crist, a potential Scott opponent in 2014.

Scott’s office did not say whether the governor would return the contributions from Heritage, only maintaining that there had been no pay-to-play.

Citizens president Barry Gilway has stood by the company’s decision to transfer $52 million to the nine-month-old Heritage. He said it’s part of Citizens’ efforts to reduce its liability and transfer risk back to the private market. In exchange for the payment, Heritage will take over as many as 60,000 policies and provide retroactive “reinsurance” for any policies that have claims between Jan. 1 and June 28.

“This is a great opportunity to place another 60,000 policies into the hands of one of the most well-capitalized companies in the Florida marketplace,” said Gilway. “I think the logic behind this agreement is compelling.”

Last year, Weatherford chided Citizens for attempting to loan out up to $250 million from its cash surplus to smaller private insurance companies. Citizens eventually abandoned the loan effort, but later decided to go ahead with plans to pay takeout companies in cash.

Now, Weatherford is calling on the chair of the Regulatory Affairs Committee to conduct a review of Citizens’ bylaws.

The review is needed, he said, because “there is a growing concern about their lack of understanding that Citizens has a greater responsibility to the public.”