Ox­en­dine’s ready to take the wheel

The Covington News - - Opinion - Tom Craw­ford Colum­nist

If there’s one les­son that John Ox­en­dine should have learned by now, it’s that cars and pol­i­tics don’t mix.

Ge­or­gia’s in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner, who is hard at work on a 2010 cam­paign for gov­er­nor, has had more than his share of mis­for­tune caused by his in­volve­ment with of­fi­cial state ve­hi­cles.

Shortly af­ter he first took of­fice as in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner in 1995, Ox­en­dine ran his state-is­sued ve­hi­cle off the road and crashed into some trees in Gwin­nett County, caus­ing dam­ages es­ti­mated at $17,000. He told po­lice that he had swerved the car to avoid hit­ting a deer.

A few years later, when he was at the wheel of a state car equipped with blue lights and a siren (Ox­en­dine also serves as the state fire mar­shal), he had the lights flash­ing and was weav­ing through traf­fic on In­ter­state 285 when he crashed into a pickup truck. As a re­sult of this ac­ci­dent, it cost nearly $7,000 to re­pair the truck and the Crown Vic­to­ria was to­taled at a cost to tax­pay­ers of $18,000.

“Peo­ple go years and years without a sit­u­a­tion, and then have strings of bad luck,” Ox­en­dine was quoted in me­dia ac­counts at the time. “Ac­ci­dents are ac­ci­dents.”

Ox­en­dine claimed that this par­tic­u­lar ac­ci­dent hap­pened be­cause he was rush­ing to get to his capi­tol of­fice af­ter a fire alarm had forced an evac­u­a­tion of the build­ing. The truth­ful­ness of that state­ment was in­ves­ti­gated by both the GBI and the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors later con­cluded that Ox­en­dine had used his emer­gency blue light on sev­eral oc­ca­sions to get around traf­fic and avoid be­ing late to so­cial func­tions, in­clud­ing one din­ner en­gage­ment with his son.

Th­ese “re­peated mis­uses” of emer­gency equip­ment prompted At­tor­ney Gen­eral Thurbert Baker to rec­om­mend that Ox­en­dine’s emer­gency priv­i­leges be re­voked.

“Ev­ery time you flip on that blue light, you can po­ten­tially cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion of dan­ger out there on the high­way,” Baker said, adding that with Ox­en­dine “there clearly seems to be a pat­tern of abuse.”

Ox­en­dine sub­se­quently re­moved the blue lights and sirens from his cars and re­quested that his per­mits be “de­ac­ti­vated.” The state Board of Pub­lic Safety voted for­mally in 2001 to re­scind his per­mits to op­er­ate emer­gency lights and sirens. News­pa­per columnists also started re­fer­ring to the in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner as “Crash” Ox­en­dine.

You would think that af­ter two high-pro­file ac­ci­dents Ox­en­dine would go out of his way to avoid any other in­ci­dents with state ve­hi­cles. But no. In 2003, Ox­en­dine spent $25,322 in tax­payer funds on yet an­other Crown Vic­to­ria, in­clud­ing $6,363 for ex­tras like leather seats, a CD player and a “pur­suit sus­pen­sion” pack­age. This pur­chase occurred af­ter he had been in­structed not to buy the ve­hi­cle be­cause of the state’s bud­get prob­lems.

Af­ter re­view­ing the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the ve­hi­cle pur­chase, the state in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice re­ported: “Com­mis­sioner Ox­en­dine’s ac­tions were in bla­tant dis­re­gard for es­tab­lished au­thor­ity. When in­formed that he would not be al­lowed to pur­chase his au­to­mo­bile, his re­sponse was, in gen­eral, ‘Try and stop me.”

Ox­en­dine even­tu­ally re­im­bursed the state for the ve­hi­cle but also is­sued this de­fi­ant state­ment: “I have stated pub­licly my dis­agree­ment with the re­port’s find­ings of fact and con­clu­sions. Al­though this of­fice is not bound by the opin­ion of the Of­fice of In­spec­tor Gen­eral, I have de­cided to pur­chase this ve­hi­cle per­son­ally and do­nate it to the Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of In­sur­ance to fi­nally re­solve this mat­ter and demon­strate this of­fice’s com­mit­ment to fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

As he gets deeper into the 2010 gov­er­nor’s race, it ap­pears that Ox­en­dine has re­tained his taste for high-priced trans­porta­tion. His ini­tial dis­clo­sure re­port shows that Ox­en­dine spent $36,933 from his cam­paign ac­count on June 30 to buy what was de­scribed as a “cam­paign auto.” The ve­hi­cle was iden­ti­fied as a 2007 GMC De­nali, a lux­ury SUV that can cost as much as $58,785 when new.

Ox­en­dine’s aides say the pur­chase and use of the SUV will be in ac­cord with all the ap­pli­ca­ble cam­paign fi­nance laws, but you can bet that one of Ox­en­dine’s crit­ics will, at some point, try to file an ethics com­plaint and stir up a con­tro­versy about it.

Since the in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner ob­vi­ously likes those ex­pen­sive cars, my ad­vice to the other candidates in the gov­er­nor’s race is this: buckle your seat­belts and check your rear-view mir­ror. You could be in for a bumpy ride.

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