Stories about the historic corruption and mismanagement of Louisiana's Insurance Department have become so commonplace that nothing surprises voters anymore. To list every indiscretion would take more space than is available in this newspaper. But let us hit the dark highlights, which illustrate the tragedy of bad governance -- and ultimately the erosion of the faith of the people in a democracy.
Once, there was Sherman Bernard, who committed fraud so many years ago that many in our younger generation do not even know him. Yet, he is one link of three in a chain that connects the insurance department's sordid history for more than two decades. Bernard, a four-term insurance commissioner, served three years in the federal slammer after pleading to charges that he extorted and conspired to trade insurance licenses for payoffs.
Bernard was followed immediately by another elected miscreant -- Doug Green. The young insurance commissioner, who looked like the boy next door, took $2 million in illegal campaign contributions from Champion Insurance Co., a Baton Rouge insurer that was tossing and turning in a financial mess but was kept alive by Green, who allegedly looked the other way.
When Champion failed, it left $150 million in unpaid claims, which were covered by taxpayers. Green, unwilling to admit wrongdoing and cop a plea, was convicted and imprisoned for 25 years. He is still serving time in a federal prison in Pensacola.
Then came Jim Brown, who took over after an interim, appointed commissioner succeeded Green. Brown, a talkative politician, promised to reform the office. He was convicted last year of lying to the FBI, which was exploring alleged backdoor deals for a failed insurance company when it caught the commissioner in several misstatements. A federal judge sentenced Brown to six months in prison and fined him $50,000. An appeals court has allowed him to remain free pending his appeal.
After the conviction, more disturbing news emerged about Jim Brown's Insurance Department. About two weeks ago, Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle, who serves lawmakers as a watchdog of all agencies who get state money, cited the insurance department for $35,000 worth of impropriety and payroll fraud. In an audit, Kyle said that four of Brown's employees were paid for hours they did not work and were reimbursed for expenses they did not incur. The department got a "D" rating, Kyle's lowest.
The audit named names, including Fess Irvin, a former LSU basketball player reportedly picked by Brown for, as Kyle put it, a "deadhead" position. Also named was Richard Chambers, who allegedly filed 209 false expense reimbursement forms and was paid $11,247 for travel mileage to which he was not entitled. Brown's deputy commissioner of management and finance approved those and other questionable expenses -- including those incurred by employees who were on leisure trips, working out at the gym and performing in a play.
Enough is enough.
It's time to appoint Louisiana's insurance commissioner instead of electing politicians who consistently let us down. Handled properly, appointing the commissioner would remove many of the incentives for impropriety.
It would not be unusual to appoint the insurance commissioner. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners counts just 12 states that elect the lead insurance regulator. They are California, Florida, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Carolina, North Dakota and Washington. The rest -- in different ways -- appoint the insurance chief.
While we're at it, we should also appoint the Elections Commissioner (or make it part of the Secretary of State's office) and the Secretary of Agriculture. Those positions, along with that of insurance commissioner, are purely administrative and can be managed much better by professionals in those fields than by politicians whose main goal is to get re-elected.
State Sen. Ken Hollis, R-Metairie, has pre-filed a bill to make the insurance commissioner appointed in 2004. Rep. Chuck McMains, R-Baton Rouge, says he will file a similar bill, though the details of his proposal have not been finalized.
The goal should be to remove politics from ministerial jobs. To facilitate that goal, lawmakers should require that prospective appointees meet specific qualifications, and the law should allow the public to view the list of persons under consideration before the governor -- or someone else -- chooses one for the job. McMains says his bill would forbid an appointed commissioner from politicking or raising campaign funds for the governor.
We encourage lawmakers to explore these and other possibilities. New Jersey, for instance, has rolled the insurance and banking departments into one, a conversion sparked by the dropping of barriers among financial markets. The rollup has saved money as well.
The time is right for making this important change. We hope lawmakers will study Louisiana's options carefully and choose the one that presents the best chances for cleaning up some longstanding messes.