Ex-GA insurance commissioner Jim Beck gets 7 years in federal prison

Georgia’s former insurance commissioner Jim Beck was sentenced to federal prison Tuesday for a yearslong scheme to steal from a former employer.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark H. Cohen sentenced Beck, 60, to seven years and three months of confinement followed by three years of supervised release. Cohen, who ordered Beck to pay $2.6 million in restitution, said Beck had betrayed people close to him for his fraud and then repeatedly lied on the witness stand.

“The testimony was outrageous,” Cohen said. “It was as if he was making it up as he went along.”

Jurors found that Beck, a longtime player in Georgia GOP politics, deceived close friends and a cousin to drag them into his scheme to embezzle more than $2 million from Georgia Underwriting Association. Beck was general manager at the association — the state-created insurer for high-risk customers who’ve had trouble buying coverage — before leaving to run for state insurance commissioner. He was suspended by Gov. Brian Kemp just months into office in 2019 when the federal indictment came down.

On the witness stand, Beck had insisted he’d committed no scam and tried to shift blame to a man named Jerry Jordan, who might not have even existed. No one, including Beck, could find Jordan. There were other people Beck talked about on the stand who never turned up, including some car wash workers he said he met and then hired to do data work for Georgia Underwriting Association.

On Tuesday, Beck told the judge he understood the jury’s verdict. “I am completely and totally responsible,” he said.

He apologized vaguely for his actions and lamented the pain he’d caused to people who trusted him, including his wife and son.

“Lucy and Jimmy have never failed me,” he said. “I failed.”

Beck said he’d never been a good businessman, prompting the judge to remind Beck that he hadn’t made errors in business, he’d committed fraud.

Before Beck’s downfall, the folksy politician — who is adept at the requisite schmoozing — had been well known in Georgia Republican circles as an insurance lobbyist and the longtime head of the Georgia Christian Coalition.

At the Underwriting Association, Beck used four companies to help with a project to verify that some customers were properly insured. Prosecutors said three friends and one of Beck’s cousins helped him, but they each testified that Beck hadn’t told them a lot of the money would end up in his pocket.

“I believed in Jim Beck,” Steve McKaig testified during the trial. “I was taken advantage of by someone I thought was my friend,” said McKaig, who had been pulled into the case with his wife, Sonya McKaig.

But 85 people — from Beck’s third-grade girlfriend to folks who met him in politics — wrote letters to the judge about his character. Cohen said the letters and stories within made clear that Beck had done a lot of good in his life.

Beck’s sister, Marie Beck Benedict, spoke in court, telling Cohen her brother had helped guide her to church and faith during an ugly divorce she went through. Their mother has dementia, Benedict said, and the brother and sister have been caring for her. Sometimes, Benedict said, Beck is the only person their mom will respond to.

“I just don’t think I could make it through this without Jim,” she said. “He is our backbone.”

Cohen encouraged Beck to do something positive when he’s released to make up for the pain and trouble he’d caused.

Cohen also questioned why Beck did what he did in the first place. Beck hadn’t been broke or anywhere near it when he spent five years stealing and lying. Cohen figured it came down to two things: greed and something like hubris.

“This is mindboggling to the court,” the judge said.

The judge said Beck could remain free on bond. At Beck’s attorney Bill Thomas’ request, Cohen said he’d ask that Beck be allowed to turn himself in no sooner than Dec. 1 so he could have Thanksgiving at home.

Attorneys Bill Thomas, left, and Randy Chartash speak about their client, former Georgia insurance commissioner Jim Beck, outside the Russell Federal Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. Beck was sentenced to seven years in prison. (Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Thomas also assured Cohen that Beck, who is still not broke, will pay restitution promptly.

Beck was convicted in July of 37 counts of fraud, money laundering and tax crimes. Among other things, prosecutors said the money that Beck obtained helped finance his campaign in 2018.

Beck’s conviction means one less contender in the 2022 race for state insurance commissioner. John King, the longtime Doraville police chief who Kemp appointed as interim state insurance commissioner, is running to keep the job. The insurance commissioner’s office is charged with licensing and regulation of insurance companies, investigating reports of fraud and arson, and inspecting buildings to prevent fire.

“With today’s sentencing,” King said in a statement, “we can now finally move on from this unfortunate chapter and focus on continuing the great work we have accomplished since Gov. Kemp appointed me to lead this agency over two years ago.”