TALLAHASSEE — The chief executive of Florida's state-backed property insurer defended overseas travel Tuesday as Gov. Rick Scott lectured him about the need to be more careful about spending.
Scott demanded an appearance by Barry Gilway, president of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., at a Cabinet meeting in the wake of media reports that the insurer's board chairman spent $425 a night at a Bermuda hotel for a reinsurance conference.
Gilway said he personally approved the two-night stay by Citizens board chairman Chris Gardner, who repaid $104 to taxpayers because the nightly rate exceeded the state's maximum allowable rate of $373. The overcharge, first reported by the Palm Beach Post, was discovered by Citizens and immediately corrected, Gilway said.
"Welcome to government," Scott told Gilway. "Everybody, they're going to watch you, and people are still concerned about their property insurance costs. So when there's an example like this, it makes it look like you're not watching the dollars."
That Gilway got called on the carpet for an overcharge of $104 shows that Citizens still has not fully recovered from revelations of two years ago — before Gilway arrived — of lavish spending, favoritism and sexual improprieties, including a drunk Citizens employee stripping off her bra and dancing on a table at Coyote Ugly, a bar in Ybor City in Tampa, behavior that got her a warning.
"You haven't heard any stories about dancing on tables or raucous behavior in public for the past 24 months," Gilway told Scott and the three Cabinet members. "Why? Because it hasn't existed."
Scott, who is seeking re-election this fall, earlier called for a ban on foreign travel by Citizens. But Gilway cited a consultant's study that said Citizens can't seal deals that yield savings for taxpayers and ratepayers without face-to-face contact with investors, many of whom are overseas, such as those at the Bermuda conference in April who agreed to buy a large chunk of Citizens' insurance risk.
"We have to be incredibly careful of expenses," Gilway said. "But we've got to have a professional team presenting to the reinsurers and most definitely to investors."
But skepticism lingered. Scott asked if Citizens employees charge taxpayers for alcoholic beverages ("Absolutely not," Gilway said), and Attorney General Pam Bondi was taken aback when Gilway said Citizens spent $48,000 on overseas travel between January and April of this year, money Gilway said produced $233 million in savings.
Scott praised Gilway for reducing the number of Citizens policyholders from 1.5 million to 933,000 in less than two years. But Scott told reporters that because Citizens employs insurance brokers, he does not understand why so much overseas travel is required.
"We have to continue to look at reducing travel," Scott said.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.