Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Business

State inspector general: Citizens Property Insurance's excessive travel spending should be curtailed

Employees and board members of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. racked up excessive travel expenses last year, from afternoon tea at a posh London hotel to a $918 dinner at an Orlando restaurant, according to a critical review released Thursday by Florida's chief inspector general.

Citizens does not adhere to state travel laws but instead follows its own policies, which are "vague" and fail to ensure that travel "was necessary and conducted in the most economical manner," the report said. It recommended that the state-run company, which insures more than 1.3 million Florida homeowners, be required to follow state travel laws, or "this type of spending will continue to occur."

Gov. Rick Scott requested the review after the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald reported in August that Citizens' senior managers and board members enjoyed lavish meals, stayed in five-star hotels and billed for car services.

In a statement, Scott said he agreed with the inspector general and deemed Citizens "in urgent need'' of reforms. Florida's Chief Financial Officer, Jeff Atwater, was even more critical, saying "this culture of excess and poor judgment is unacceptable, and Floridians deserve better.''

Citizens has said it should not be bound by state travel polices, arguing that it would lose a competitive advantage with private insurers. In the wake of the Times/Herald story, Citizens tightened its travel polices, putting a cap on lodging and meal expenses for senior managers and employees but not for board members. That leaves "those purchases open to individual interpretation of what is reasonable,'' the report said.

The inspector general's office reviewed some 350 business expense reports submitted by Citizens employees and board members between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31. The travel expenses totaled $1.3 million, including nearly $442,000 on hotels and $454,000 for car expenses.

About 30 percent of the reports were filed later than the required 10-day time frame and many included expenses of more than one employee, making it difficult to tell who was responsible for a given charge.

Among the findings:

• Citizens' Chief Financial Officer Sharon Binnun incurred $236.17 for the six-hour "day use'' of a hotel room for a meeting in Zurich, Switzerland. She also upgraded her room in Bermuda's Fairmont Hamilton Princess Hotel to "gold status,'' bringing the cost to $633 per night.

• When Carlos Lacasa, the board chairman, went to London in April with Binnun and another Citizens executive, the trio had a dinner in a French bistro that worked out to $73.30 per person — more than three times the company's limit for most employees. Citizens' accounting department approved the entire $234.91 bill.

• As many as 36 Citizens employees and board members attended board meetings held in swank hotels, often staying multiple nights. For a meeting in Tampa, Citizens' former interim president Tom Grady spent four nights at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay at $188 a night while other attendees stayed in a Marriott for $119 a night.

• At board meetings and workshops, Citizens paid for breakfasts, lunches and service charges that would be prohibited by state travel laws but were allowable under the company's policies. At one board meeting in Orlando, such costs came to $8,282.

• In June, an unidentified Citizens senior manager hired a car service for $101 to ferry several colleagues and a board member 15 miles to dinner in Orlando even though "two or possibly three of the managers had vehicles available for use in Orlando including a car rented for Citizens business,'' the report said.

Another board member took a taxi to the same dinner for $58. The total meal cost came to $918.34 and included the purchase of alcoholic beverages, even though liquor and wine are not reimbursable under Citizens' policies.

"It is unclear whether a $300 personal check covered a portion of these expenses or not,'' the report said.

• Twice in early 2012, Lacasa, the board chairman, was reimbursed for hotel expenses in Tallahassee that exceeded the negotiated room rate for Citizens employees. There was no explanation for why higher costs were incurred.

• Airline flights were rescheduled, sometimes within a day of the original reservation, at extra charges ranging from $50 to $472.50 per change. Due to the lack of documentation, "we were unable to determine the reasonableness of these changes and the resulting fees,'' the report said.

In response to the report, Citizens' president Barry Gilway issued a statement promising the insurer would further tighten its policies to better comply with state travel standards and reporting requirements.

"By acting in the most fiscally prudent manner possible, we hope to begin restoring the public confidence in our ability to better serve as sound financial guardians for our policyholders and all Florida taxpayers,'' Gilway said.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected] Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected]

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