Insurance com­mis­sioner won’t dis­close cal­en­dars af­ter dona­tions

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Stay Connected - BY HAN­NAH WI­LEY hwi­[email protected]

An ad­vo­cacy group is de­mand­ing that Cal­i­for­nia’s insurance com­mis­sioner re­lease records about his busi­ness meet­ings fol­low­ing a re­port that he ac­cepted tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from insurance lead­ers and their spouses.

Insurance Com­mis­sioner Ri­cardo Lara has re­fused the re­quest from Con­sumer Watch­dog, which first asked him to dis­close his cal­en­dars in early June.

Con­sumer Watch­dog re­newed its re­quest af­ter a July 7 re­port in The San Diego Union-Tri­bune that de­tailed $54,000 in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from the in­dus­try he reg­u­lates.

The ad­vo­cacy group charges that Lara’s cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions raise ques­tions about “in­flu­ence-ped­dling” in the depart­ment.

Con­tri­bu­tions came from Stephen and Ca­role Acunto, who each do­nated the max­i­mum al­lowed $15,500. Stephen Acunto is a spokesper­son for Ap­plied Un­der­writ­ers, a worker’s com­pen­sa­tion insurer.

Theresa DeBar­brie maxed out her do­na­tion as well, and is the wife of an­other com­pany ex­ec­u­tive. Nearly $8,000 came from Darlene Graber, whose hus­band is also in the insurance in­dus­try.

Lara pledged to re­turn the $54,000 within hours of the Union-Tri­bune’s story pub­lish­ing. He said he planned to fill his role as cam­paign trea­surer with a new ap­point­ment. Dur­ing his 2018 elec­tion, Lara also re­turned $50,000 from med­i­cal mal­prac­tice in­sur­ers.

Ap­plied Un­der­writ­ers is seek­ing an ac­qui­si­tion ap­proval from Lara, and for­merly set­tled with the Depart­ment of Insurance for “bait and switch” mar­ket­ing tac­tics in 2017.

In a July 8 let­ter to Lara, Con­sumer Watch­dog asked the insurance com­mis­sioner to pro­vide an “ex­pla­na­tion of how and why” the con­tri­bu­tions were made, and con­tin­ued that “the pub­lic de­serves to know whether the donors acted uni­lat­er­ally, or if the con­tri­bu­tions were so­licited and by whom.”

Jerry Flana­gan, lit­i­ga­tion direc­tor for the group, said the dona­tions could be “mo­tive for the com­pa­nies to grease the over­sight process by mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions.”

“These com­pa­nies have a check­ered past,” he said. “That’s why the merger ap­proval piece and the past con­duct of (these com­pa­nies) is so im­por­tant here.”

Michael Soller, spokesman for Lara’s of­fice, said the com­mis­sioner will not be in­volved in any de­ci­sion re­gard­ing Ap­plied Un­der­writ­ers.

Lara, 44, is a for­mer mem­ber of the Cal­i­for­nia Assem­bly and state Se­nate. The depart­ment is the “largest con­sumer pro­tec­tion agency in the state” and over­sees 1,300 insurance com­pa­nies and $310 bil­lion in pre­mi­ums per year.

Chuck Quack­en­bush was the last insurance com­mis­sioner known to break the multi-decade norm of re­ject­ing such con­tri­bu­tions. He re­signed in 2000 amid po­lit­i­cal scan­dal for di­rect­ing insurance con­tri­bu­tions to non­prof­its he was con­nected to.

“I pledged to not ac­cept insurance money dur­ing my cam­paign, and it is a pledge I in­tend to keep,” Lara said in a state­ment. “I am proud of my record pro­tect­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s con­sumers and will con­tinue my work to curtail the im­pacts of wild­fires linked to cli­mate change and de­ter insurance fraud against in­jured work­ers and their fam­i­lies.”

Con­sumer Watch­dog filed a Pub­lic Records Act re­quest on June 4 ask­ing Lara’s of­fice for a sched­ule of meet­ings with in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Af­ter back-and-forth com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the depart­ment’s le­gal an­a­lyst, ac­cord­ing to Con­sumer Watch­dog, the re­quest to re­lease the cal­en­dars was de­nied.

The com­mis­sioner’s of­fice said it de­nied the re­quest based on a law that qual­i­fies cer­tain records as “priv­i­leged or con­fi­den­tial.”

It’s cus­tom­ary for the gover­nor’s of­fice to re­lease redacted ver­sions of cal­en­dar meet­ings, but law­mak­ers typ­i­cally do not be­cause they are sub­ject to a dif­fer­ent open govern­ment law.

“It’s cru­cial to the pub­lic in­ter­est that they pro­vide these doc­u­ments,” Con­sumer Watch­dog Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor Car­men Bal­ber said. “That they dis­close what, if any­thing, the com­mis­sioner or his staff had to do with so­lic­it­ing the con­tri­bu­tions.”

In a July 11 let­ter ob­tained by The Sacra­mento Bee, Con­sumer Watch­dog nar­rowed its orig­i­nal re­quest to records of meet­ings with the com­pany ex­ec­u­tives and their spouses who do­nated the money de­scribed by The San Diego Union-Tri­bune.

“We re­ceived a Pub­lic Records Act re­quest and we’ll re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately,” Soller told The Bee.

Han­nah Wi­ley: 916-321-5236

DON THOMP­SON AP

Insurance Com­mis­sioner Ri­cardo Lara, at the podium, speak at a news con­fer­ence in Fe­bru­ary at the state Capi­tol. Lara has re­fused a re­quest from Con­sumer Watch­dog for him to dis­close his cal­en­dars. The group says that Lara’s cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions raise ques­tions about “in­flu­ence-ped­dling” in his depart­ment.

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