Revealing testimony in trial of suspended Georgia insurance commissioner

Jim Beck has been suspended since his 2019 indictment.
Jim Beck has been suspended since his 2019 indictment.

Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group.

Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group.

On the witness stand Thursday, Matt Barfield recalled the day he decided to help the FBI investigate his cousin.

It was December 2018, a couple of weeks after Jim Beck had won an election to be Georgia’s insurance commissioner. The campaign was funded in part, authorities allege, by money Beck embezzled from his former employer. To pull off an elaborate scheme, the feds believe Beck tricked friends and Barfield into helping.

Barfield gave FBI agents access to his phone so they could record both ends of a call. The agents wanted him to call Beck and reveal that the FBI had been asking questions about their business dealings.

“Is there anything I need to know about,” Barfield asked Beck, according to a tape played during the suspended insurance commissioner’s fraud trial.

“No,” Beck said. “It’s just a matter of explaining it to them.”

Explaining hasn’t worked, at least for Beck. The commissioner, who has been suspended since his 2019 indictment, has been on trial in federal court since Tuesday, facing dozens of counts related to his alleged scam to defraud the Georgia Underwriting Association. He’s accused of stealing $2 million, and insists he is innocent.

Beck, a folksy politician well known in Georgia Republican circles, was the general manager for the Georgia Underwriting Association for about five years until he left during his campaign. The association, based in Suwanee, is a state-created entity that offers property insurance to homeowners who have trouble getting coverage elsewhere.

Testimony from Barfield and others shed light on how Beck is alleged to have ran the plot.

Barfield said Beck approached him in 2013, asking if he would be interested in making extra cash writing invoices for a few companies that were doing contract work for the underwriting association. Barfield testified he doesn’t know much about the insurance industry and trusted his cousin, who had many years of experience.

Steve and Sonya McKaig, who were close friends with Beck and his wife for decades, testified that Beck approached them, proposing they set up companies that could do contract work for the Georgia Underwriting Association.

The McKaigs are both veterans of the insurance industry. The wife started a company to manually process insurance documents. The husband started one with the purpose of contacting customers who needed help.

Steve McKaig, 69, smiled while recalling how well the customers received his tips and help finding plumbers and carpet cleaners. But McKaig said that was before he went to testify before the grand jury and saw evidence that Beck had lied to him repeatedly.

“I believed in Jim Beck. I thought he was an honest man who had great ideas for Georgia,” McKaig said.

Beck’s defense attempted to seize on the idea that the service Steve McKaig provided customers was useful. His attorneys have sought to cast him as an innovator who helped customers and led the association to profits it hadn’t seen in 40 years.

Defense attorney Randy Chartash tried to get McKaig to talk more about how much he helped people.

But each time Chartash asked, McKaig instead mentioned Beck’s betrayal.

Voices raised.

“I was taken advantage of by someone I thought was my friend,” McKaig said.

“Have you talked to me about the case? Have you talked to Mr. Beck about this case?” the attorney said, getting louder, suggesting McKaig just had the government’s side of the story.

“I saw evidence in the grand jury,” said McKaig, leaning forward.

Judge Mark Cohen eased the tension with a smirk: “This isn’t ‘Wrestle Mania.’”

According to McKaig, Beck told him the calls McKaig made to the customers ostensibly had the additional purpose of pleasing a wealthy investor. That investor, described as an elderly man, had agreed to provide Georgia Underwriting Association with re-insurance. Re-insurance, essentially, is insurance that providers take out to decrease the chances of being wiped out by large claims.

Testimony suggested two possible identities of the money man.

The first was Jerry Luquire, a former president of the Georgia Christian Coalition. Beck became president of the group after Luquire.

Luquire was indeed aging: he was 75 when he died in June 2014. But Beck allegedly kept talking about a wealthy investor even after Luquire died. (Authorities haven’t given any indication they believe Luquire was ever involved.)

The second possible identity of the wealthy investor was Beck’s cousin Barfield. He’s a middle-aged HVAC mechanic who files income taxes for cash on the side.

“Any chance you’re a millionaire investor,” prosecutor Brent Gray asked Barfield.

“No, sir,” Barfield said.