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Largest private insurer in Florida fined $1.3 million for long list of violations

TALLAHASSEE — The state's largest private property insurance company has been violating state law, mistreating customers and shifting profits to affiliates for years, according to an order released Thursday by the Office of Insurance Regulation.

Universal Property and Casualty Insurance Company has been fined $1.3 million for a laundry list of violations ranging from mismanaging its money to wrongfully denying insurance claims to failing to maintain appropriate records. Many of the violations are repeat offenses for the company, since regulators flagged the misbehavior in 2005.

The fine, if it holds, would be one of the largest ever levied against a property insurer.

Fort Lauderdale-based Universal has more than 542,000 policyholders, and is 15 times as large as it was in 2004. During that rapid growth span, regulators say, it built up bad habits of breaking insurance rules and using questionable financial practices.

The company was blasted last year by Insurance Consumer Advocate Robin Westcott for its practice of "post claim underwriting." After homeowners filed insurance claims, the company would scrutinize the initial policyholder application, to see if any mistakes had been made. If the homeowner failed to report a credit issue on the initial application, Universal would deny the claim and cancel the policy.

"This practice is reprehensible and should cease immediately," Westcott said last month, urging the Office of Insurance Regulation to investigate.

The OIR found that Universal was indeed canceling policies after policyholders made claims, leaving homeowners who thought they had insurance with huge repair bills and no coverage.

The company also made several other violations, cited in the 19-page OIR order, which is subject to challenge by Universal before it becomes final. They include:

• Canceling policies without justification (a "repeat violation" from the 2005 Market Conduct Examination).

• Requiring homeowners to produce multiple "notarized proof of loss" documents after making a claim.

• Not keeping a copy of consumer complaints, as required by regulators and Florida statutes.

According to regulators, Universal's business plan included paying out lots of money in fees to affiliated companies. Those affiliates ended up with large profits, while Universal ended up with losses.

"The occurrence of losses at (Universal) and profits in the affiliates raises concern as to the fairness and reasonableness of intercompany arrangements in times of declining market conditions," the order states.

For example, Universal paid more than $86 million in fees to affiliates in 2010. One of those affiliates made $44 million in profit while Universal lost money in 2009.

The company also paid a reinsurer more than $18 million for backup insurance, but guaranteed that the unregulated reinsurer would receive a 25 percent profit. The arrangement, flagged by regulators, has since been terminated.

The company's CEO, Bradley Meier, also had sole discretion over a highly active investment portfolio, which made an average of 23 trades per day, racking up $2.3 million in fees and commissions in the 18 months leading up to June 30, 2011. Half of the stock trades were in mining and precious metals companies.

Meier was the only official involved in more than 5,700 trades, which did not yield favorable results to the company relative to the broader market.

The company actually lost money on investments in the first six months of 2011, while the rest of the industry saw investment gains during a healthy year for the stock market. OIR said the trading activity violated state law.

Meier resigned from the firm earlier this year, though he remains a paid adviser for the company. He sold more than 1.5 million shares of company stock last year, yielding about $5 million.

Largest private insurer in Florida fined $1.3 million for long list of violations 05/30/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 30, 2013 8:28pm]
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