TALLAHASSEE — When the president of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. learned that his chief financial officer had used corporate funds to finance a luxurious weekend at a $633-a-night resort in Bermuda, he initially described the expenses as "absolutely appropriate."
But president Barry Gilway changed his tune after a Times/Herald story and a subsequent inspector general's report documented evidence that executives regularly ran up huge expenses on the company credit card, traveling and dining at four-star locations across the globe.
"As guardians of public funds, we must hold ourselves to a more rigorous standard," he said.
It was a full-throated mea culpa, following sharp rebukes from Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and top lawmakers. But behind the scenes, Gilway was quietly handing out huge salary increases for the well-traveled CFO, Sharon Binnun, and several other executives who run the state-backed company.
As news stories were documenting her $35,000 tour through four-star hotels in four countries, Binnun was enjoying a $31,000 pay hike, boosting her salary 14 percent to $255,000.
Several other top officials got pay hikes of more than $25,000 late last year as well, even as the company's executive suite was enmeshed in a series of corporate scandals and questionable spending. Citizens says the raises were justified due to increased responsibility and "parity" with the private market.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of other state employees have gone six years without a general wage increase. This year, the governor has proposed $2,500 pay raises to public school teachers, a move top legislative leaders have yet to endorse.
While company execs enjoyed big salary hikes and cushy perks, Citizens was pushing homeowners to pay higher insurance rates and slashing their coverage.
"I thought I could take some consolation in the 45 percent (premium) increase because I would be getting better coverage (turns out to be less)," Coral Gables homeowner Patricia Temple wrote in a letter to her state senator this month. "That was quickly destroyed (after) learning money was recklessly and unnecessarily spent on lavish dinners, luxury hotels, etc. — partly paid with my money."
Temple, an 80-year-old retired librarian whose insurance premium went up $2,100 last year, was featured in a 2012 Times/Herald series on Citizens' statewide home reinspection program. The program hit more than 250,000 homeowners with average premium increases of about $800, costing them nearly $200 million. That's on top of the $250 million from a 10.8 percent statewide premium hike approved last year.
Citizens says the rate increases are necessary because it needs to raise more money to avoid "hurricane taxes" that would be levied on Floridians after a massive storm. Despite seven straight years with no hurricanes, Citizens officials say the company's $15 billion portfolio is not large enough to handle the kind of apocalyptic storm that happens once in a century.
While Mother Nature has spared Florida from hurricanes since 2005, Citizens has taken in billions of dollars in premiums from homeowners. Citizens also received a $715 million taxpayer bailout and the promise of millions more if it ever runs out of money again. Awash in a record amount of cash and bolstered by a taxpayer safety net, the state-run insurer has been operating more like a private company than a tax-exempt government entity.
For the company's execs, that has meant pay raises, luxury hotel stays, international plane tickets, limousine rides and wine-fueled dinners — all paid with the corporate credit card.
A Citizens spokesperson said the company's expenses are not responsible for pushing up rates, but did not elaborate.
Gilway, who earns $350,000, announced $2.1 million in salary increases for employees shortly after taking the reins of the company last year. He also raised employee health care contributions (company executives previously did not have to contribute to their health care premiums). Gilway said Citizens needed to raise salaries to remain competitive with the private market, where he had worked for four decades.
Aside from the $2.1 million in 3 percent merit raises, Gilway rewarded his top execs with raises in excess of 10 percent.
Struggling homeowners and government watchdogs see the expenditures and worry that the company has been mismanaging its surplus during the seven years of hurricane-free seasons.
From booze-filled company outings to the $2.5 million Citizens accidentally gave to another company, there's growing evidence that those years have been marred by waste and profligacy.
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The sun was beginning to set after a company meeting in Orlando last June, and Citizens' board had just chosen to appoint Gilway as its new president. He secured the position after answering a number of pointed questions from the board, including how he would shrink Citizens. His answer: raise rates.
"The attraction has to be rates and getting them at an appropriate level so that we can attract private industry," he said.
Satisfied with that answer, the board hired Gilway, ended the meeting and then set about making dinner plans.
The spot: Ocean Prime, an upscale seafood and steak restaurant that boasts of "an award-winning wine list."
The tab: $918.34 for seven or eight officials, who dined on gourmet meals and gulped down $369 worth of Grey Goose vodka and red wine. Board chairman Carlos Lacasa later reimbursed the company for most of the alcohol.
Even though two or three of the executives had rented cars for the board meeting, the company paid $160 for car service to chauffeur them to the restaurant and back.
State law caps the amount of money government employees can spend on food and travel, and discourages government employees from expensing the purchase of alcohol.
Not Citizens executives. They have stated that those rules do not apply to the state-run company, ignoring auditors who said the company should comply with government spending limits.
Operating in a legal gray area, Citizens' employees have taken advantage of the company's loosely written travel policy and its prevalence of corporate credit cards. Some of the executives who were most liberal with corporate credit cards were rewarded with hefty pay hikes after news of the spending issues broke.
The company spent more than $1.3 million on travel and meals in the first eight months of 2012. Citizens offered explanations for some of the spending on Friday, claiming that execs were operating under company policy. The company recently moved to crack down on travel expenses, implementing stricter new policies.
This is not the first time Citizens has paid out huge financial awards to executives embroiled in scandal.
In the past eight years, Citizens has paid more than $750,000 in severance packages to employees, including five-figure checks to executives who resigned after misconduct allegations. The company's former vice president of underwriting walked away with an $80,000 severance package after he was implicated in a sex scandal with an underling. He resigned and Citizens helped him to collect unemployment benefits, according to internal investigators.
Citizens' former chief administration officer, who resigned abruptly last year after allegations of falsified documents and unlicensed practice as a lawyer, continued to receive salary and benefits for five months after leaving the company.
The internal investigators who flagged the large severance packages and the altered documents were fired shortly after filing their report. Citizens says the firings were part of a restructuring, but Scott's chief inspector general is investigating whether they were retaliatory.
Contact Toluse Olorunnipa at email@example.com.