Jim Beck, commissioner of the Georgia Insurance Department, speaks at a press conference about an insurance fraud bust in a courtroom at the Clayton County Superior Court in Jonesboro , Georgia on Friday, March 1, 2019. Three victims of the insurance fraud, mainly elderly people, have been identified so far. EMILY HANEY / AJC
Photo: Emily Haney/emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney/emily.haney@ajc.com

The Jolt: Insurance commissioner’s indictment is a blow to religious conservatives

Before a raft of state employees and movie industry types began cancelling their non-refundable tickets to Los Angeles on Tuesday, Georgia’s political class was already being shaken by this:

Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck was accused Tuesday by a federal grand jury of stealing more than $2 million from his former employer.

The 38-count indictment charges Beck, an ex-insurance lobbyist and long-time leader of the Georgia Christian Coalition, with fraud and money laundering in an elaborate scheme to defraud the Georgia Underwriting Association. With the stolen cash, the Republican allegedly paid his credit card bills and taxes — and even funded the 2018 campaign that landed him in office.

Beck’s, whose lawyers said he denies the charges, is expected to surrender to U.S. Marshals on Wednesday in downtown Atlanta, said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak.

Already, we’re seeing calls for Beck to divest himself of his office. From former state House member Buzz Brockway of Gwinnett County, via Twitter:

“After watching the U.S. Attorney’s press conference, and reading the indictments, I’m convinced Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck should resign, or at least step aside until this matter is resolved.”

So what is the Georgia Underwriting Association? According to our AJC colleague James Salzer, it’s a state-created marketplace based in Suwanee that provides high-risk property insurance to Georgia homeowners having trouble obtaining coverage.

Beck is alleged to have funneled money to himself from the GUA through two Carrolton-based companies he controlled, a group called Creative Consultants, and the Georgia Christian Coalition.

The indictment is something of a blow to religious conservatives. Beck took over the Georgia Christian Coalition in 2006, when its longtime leader, Sadie Fields, was ousted by the national organization. The Georgia chapter has never regained its original clout, but it gave Beck a foothold in the movement, and a platform from which to make endorsements.

Beck took over the job of state insurance commissioner from Ralph Hudgens, a favorite of Christian conservatives. Beck was on his staff.

When he replaced Hudgens in January, Beck’s first hire was former state senator Josh McKoon of Columbus, a prominent advocate of “religious liberty” legislation.

Savannah is where we’re likely to see the first political impact of Beck’s indictment.

The state insurance commissioner is close to former state senator David Shafer of Duluth. Campaign finance records show that Beck donated $6,600 to Shafer’s Republican campaign for lieutenant governor in 2017-- the maximum allowed.

Shafer is currently one of three candidates for the chairmanship of the Georgia GOP. The election is Saturday at the state convention.

Lt. Geoff Duncan, who beat Shafer in a GOP primary runoff, has endorsed former Cobb County GOP chair Scott Johnson. On Tuesday afternoon, Chip Lake, Duncan’s chief of staff, tossed out this fact via Twitter:

So @DavidShafer was on the Board of Directors of the Georgia Underwriting Association during alleged criminal activities #GaPol

Shafer has pointed us to a statement by the Georgia Underwriting Association that noted the group is “considered by investigators to be the victim of this alleged crime.” More here:

“We have cooperated fully with the United States Attorney and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. None of the other officers, directors or employees of the Association have been implicated in the alleged crime. In light of our ongoing cooperation with the authorities, we have asked our directors and employees to make no comment beyond this statement.”

***

Late Tuesday, the Alabama Senate gave final approval to a ban on nearly all abortions in that state. If Gov. Kay Ivey signs the measure as expected, the state will have the strictest abortion law in the country.

Which won’t necessarily take the pressure off Georgia, as we explained in the aftermath of Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to cancel a state-sponsored promotion of Georgia’s film-friendly locations – in Los Angeles, with film industry executives as a target.

This morning, Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand announced that she would be in Atlanta on Thursday to “rail” against Georgia’s new “heartbeat” law. Seriously, that’s the word used by her campaign: “Rail.”

The event is to be a roundtable discussion at the state Capitol. From the press release:

“The Georgia bill is particularly cruel. It not only bans abortions before many women even know that they’re pregnant, but also includes a penalty of up to 10 years in prison for those who perform abortions and involves women in investigations if they have miscarriages.”

***

The turmoil within the National Rifle Association continues to mount, and now threatens to wrap its new president, Carolyn Meadows of Georgia, into the controversy. On Tuesday, former congressman and NRA board member Allen West accused her of being part of an NRA cabal. From the press release:

West said that newly elected NRA President Carolyn Meadows lied to media outlets by claiming the NRA board was aware of revelations reported by the Wall Street Journal, including that LaPierre expensed tens of thousands of dollars worth of designer clothing from a Beverly Hills boutique (part of nearly $275,000 in clothing that LaPierre charged to Ackerman McQueen between 2004 and 2017).

West said such statements by Meadows and NRA Audit Committee Chair Charles Cotton “have maliciously, recklessly and purposefully put me, and uninformed Board members, in legal jeopardy.”

***

The Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations plans to hold a press conference in Atlanta today to highlight a discrimination complaint filed against the state Department of Corrections, which has banned Jalanda Calhoun, a female Muslim correctional officer, from wearing a hijab at work.

One interesting aspect: Speakers from the Sikh and Jewish community will also be present to argue that their religious headgear could also be banned by the department’s policy.

***

Our colleague Johnny Edwards reports that two women have filed complaints with the State Bar of Georgia accusing House Speaker David Ralston of misleading judges when he used his legislative privileges to delay hearings for clients of his legal practice:

On several occasions when the powerful lawmaker cited his “legislative duties and obligations” to keep criminal cases from moving forward, he was actually campaigning, according to the complaints obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Ralston’s attorney described the complaints as “either absolutely false, incorrect or misleading by omission.”

***

The grand experiment is over. In 2005, the newly created city of Sandy Springs began as a public city operated by a single private contractor. In 2010, the burden of city services was widened slightly. Seven private contractors provided the work.

On Tuesday, the Sandy Springs City Council approved a shift to your standard system of city employees doing city work. About 183 positions will be shifted from contract to staff positions, bringing the total number of employees to 482. Said Mayor Rusty Paul, via press release:

“The City has pioneered the public/private partnership service delivery model, but, we believe, due to the robust economy and very tight labor market, private sector bidders did not deliver the prices we expected.”

***

In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., laid out his plans on Tuesday for the advancing a disaster aid package that has eluded bipartisan negotiators for months. The Kentucky Republican told reporters he’ll bring some sort of emergency assistance bill up for a floor vote next week – whether it has the support of both parties or not.

The House passed its own version of the bill on Friday with the support of all Democrats and 34 Republicans, including three from south Georgia. But the Senate is the place to watch for any deal that will stick.

***

Speaking of Hurricane Michael relief money, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson recently freed up nearly $35 million to help rebuild some of Georgia's infrastructure that was damaged by the storm, according to the offices of U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue. 

***

FBI Director Chris Wray has largely been able to keep his head down and avoid drawing the ire of President Donald Trump as the special counsel's probe has advanced. But the former Atlanta attorney’s luck may not be holding.

On Tuesday, for the second time in three days, the president ratcheted up his criticism of Wray. Trump said the FBI director gave a "ridiculous answer" while testifying before Congress last week. Earlier, Wray’s boss, Attorney General William Barr, had told senators that "spying did occur" as the FBI investigated the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia.

In his own public session with senators, Wray said "that's not the term I would use" to describe the operation. From the Washington Post: 

As he prepared to depart the White House on Tuesday, Trump was asked whether he retained confidence in Wray, given the director’s answer.

“Well, I didn’t understand his answer because I thought the attorney general answered it perfectly,” Trump said.

***

Senate Democrats’ campaign arm is running new Facebook ads against Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Their offensive highlights Perdue’s support for the 2017 tax overhaul, which included a provision that raised taxes on military survivor benefits for some Gold Star families. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is also hitting the first-term Republican for not being a co-sponsor over a proposed legislative fix for the problem.

The ad buy is also targeting a handful of other GOP incumbents up for re-election next year.

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