1. Business

Citizens board approves 'unique' deal with St. Petersburg insurance company

Published May 23, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — A startup insurance company with ties to current and former top politicians could receive up to $52 million from Citizens Property Insurance Corp. after its board voted 3-2 Wednesday to approve a "unique" and "outside-the-box" deal.

Heritage Property and Casualty Co., which opened for business nine months ago and contributed $110,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's campaign in March, will begin sending "takeout" letters to tens of thousands of homeowners this week. It could receive a multimillion-dollar cash windfall within months.

Scott's office distanced itself from the proposal Wednesday, blasting Citizens and saying any assertion that the governor influenced the deal for his political contributor was outrageous.

"As we have said before, Citizens appears to be tone-deaf in earning public confidence," Scott's chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, said in a statement. "Citizens needs to review their own process for taking up risk takeout agreements to ensure that all decisions are fully, publicly vetted with enough time for board members to review the material and make the best decision possible for the taxpayers of Florida who support Citizens."

The board at Citizens approved the deal despite concerns that the proposal was unveiled less than a week ago and that the St. Petersburg company's president, Richard Widdicombe, has a track record of fines and violations from insurance regulators. Two of the companies run by Widdicombe racked up hundreds of violations and thousands of dollars in fines for breaking insurance rules.

The violations from the Office of Insurance Regulation include "failure to pay claims timely," using "unlicensed insurance adjusters" and making "misleading" advertisements. One company run by Widdicombe was suspended and fined $150,000 for using unlicensed officials to sell insurance policies over the phone and sending repairmen to fix damages rather than paying for claims.

A spokesperson for Heritage said Widdicombe resigned after the misconduct took place and helped regulators investigate. Violations at another company took place before Widdicombe became president, the spokesperson said.

Heritage's lobbyist, Tom Gallagher, is a former insurance commissioner and an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate who helped create Citizens. The firm he works for is run by Citizens' former general counsel and has received between $60,000 and $110,000 in recent months to lobby the government on behalf of Heritage. The startup insurer also donated $30,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in October, two months after launching.

Gallagher said his former role as insurance commissioner and architect of Citizens had no bearing on the insurance regulators who approved the deal, some of whom previously worked under Gallagher.

"I have no sway over them," he said, pointing out that he left his government post in 2007. "They're going to do what they think is right. What I have is knowledge of how the system works and how to do things the right way."

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While Scott blasted the board, Citizens has said several times it is following Scott's 2011 mandate that the company downsize quickly and aggressively. John Wortman, a board member appointed by Scott, made a motion to approve the deal and was one of three members voting in support.

Under the deal, Heritage will take out as many as 60,000 policies from Citizens, and receive up to $52 million in cash. Citizens has $6.4 billion in surplus, built up over seven years as no hurricanes have hit Florida since 2005.

The payment would be structured as a backdated "reinsurance" agreement, where Citizens essentially pays Heritage to cover Citizens' losses on certain policies from Jan. 1 to June 28, 2013.

Since the period of time is in the past, Heritage can actively select policies that had no losses, in effect making the deal low risk.

Homeowners who receive takeout letters from Heritage in the next two weeks will have 30 days to either opt-out or be automatically shifted out of Citizens to the startup company.

The company, which has about $60 million in capital, has agreed not to raise homeowners' premiums more than 10 percent each year through 2016 and to add another $10 million to its surplus.

Still, several board members at Citizens expressed concerns about the deal, calling it a "$52 million bonus" that lacked transparency. The proposal became public only a few days before the scheduled vote.

"My problem is with the means of how we're doing it," said board member Tom Lynch. "After all the criticism that Citizens has been through, I just feel that we're doing it the wrong way."

Two members of the board were not present at the meeting and Lynch abstained from the vote, allowing the proposal to carry with the support of only three of Citizens' eight board members.

Citizens president Barry Gilway defended the proposal, saying it would reduce risk by $400 million and had undergone "more due diligence" than any other proposal in the recent past.

Before calling the board "tone-deaf," Scott's office originally downplayed the $52 million deal, calling it "not special."

Citizens officials and board members, however, characterized the proposal as: "unique," "outside-the-box," a "big precedent," "creative" and "never (before) seen."


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