Oxendine’s actions assailed

AJC Exclusive Ethics watch: As state insurance chief, he grants himself licenses

In his last full day in office, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine issued himself several licenses to sell insurance and adjust claims, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Oxendine did not take the mandated classes or licensing tests, using his authority as insurance commissioner to waive requirements for himself that apply to other Georgians seeking to sell insurance.

State lawmakers accused the former commissioner of an “abuse of power,” and his successor said Oxendine used “very, very bad judgment” in granting himself the licenses.

But Oxendine, who left office in January after 16 years, said late last week that he had more than enough experience regulating the industry and helping to write insurance law to qualify for the licenses.

“If 16 years doesn’t give you a little bit of insurance experience, I don’t know what does,” Oxendine told the AJC. “I think that’s [worth] a little bit more than taking a test and taking a class.

“The [waiver] law is there. It is at my discretion. Not much to it.”

He also said he decided against taking the tests because he worried his presence would be a distraction to other test takers.

“We didn’t want to close down a testing center,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone getting a bad grade and saying the insurance commissioner was sitting next to them distracting them.”

Agency staffers say they can’t remember another example of the commissioner’s waiving such requirements, although Oxendine said he had used the exemption before.

Records obtained by the AJC show Oxendine applied for several insurance agent, adjuster and counselor licenses Jan. 4, less than a week before he left office. The licenses were issued Sunday, Jan. 9. The next day, Oxendine left office and fellow Republican Ralph Hudgens took over.

“My understanding is everyone on the staff advised him not to do it, not to just do it by fiat,” Hudgens said. “I’ve looked into if there is anything I can do about it. I can’t really do anything about it; I can’t take it back.”

Hudgens made it clear he expected Oxendine to pass the same tests as other applicants.

At the time Oxendine applied for the licenses, it was taking the agency nine to 10 business days to turn around such applications, according to Hudgens’ office. So, on average, Oxendine’s application wouldn’t have resulted in licenses being issued until more than a week after he left office.

Since, under the agency’s rules, Oxendine could waive the education and testing requirements, the licenses he received were issued Sunday, Jan. 9, the day before Hudgens took office.

Oxendine, who is practicing law, said he doesn’t plan to sell insurance, even though he registered a company called Oxendine Insurance Services with the secretary of state’s office five days after he gave himself the licenses.

He said he wanted them “out of an abundance of caution” because his practice sometimes involves insurance law. He also is doing some work as an “expert witness” in insurance legal cases.

Reaction to the revelation was almost uniformly negative.

State Sen. George Hooks, who has owned an insurance agency in Americus for more than 30 years, just shook his head when he found out how Oxendine got his licenses.

“He should have gone through the same hoops, and testing and education that everybody else did,” said Hooks, a Democrat. “I think it smacks of favoritism, and if I were the current insurance commissioner, I would look at it very carefully.”

Douglas County state Rep. Bill Hembree, a Republican who has been in the insurance business for 15 years, said lawmakers should pass legislation eliminating the ability of the commissioner to waive education and testing requirements for agents.

“Any time you have to earn a license or a degree, there is a lot of preparation involved,” he said. “It’s not just holding a title.”

He called it “an abuse of power that obviously shouldn’t have happened.”

According to Hudgens’ office, an applicant would have been required to complete 80 hours of classes and pass several tests — with a minimum score of 70 percent correct on each — to get the licenses Oxendine applied for.

Gould Hagler, a lobbyist for the Independent Insurance Agents of Georgia, wouldn’t comment on Oxendine’s actions.

But he said, “Our association certainly supports strong standards of education for our agents and a stringent licensing test, and we don’t believe agents should be licensed until they have taken the necessary classes and passed the required tests.”

Oxendine was a relatively obscure, party-switching lawyer when he upset Democratic incumbent Insurance Commissioner Tim Ryles in 1994. He won re-election easily three times before deciding in 2009 to seek the Republican nomination for governor.

During his years as commissioner, he raised more than $3 million in campaign contributions from people who owned or worked with the companies he regulated, and he was among the top GOP fund-raisers in the gubernatorial contest in 2009 and 2010. But he finished a surprising fourth in the Republican primary after initially leading in the polls.

Hudgens said he doesn’t think the department regulation allowing insurance commissioners to make exceptions is necessarily a bad one.

“We can’t write regulations that prohibit bad judgment,” he said. “I think this was very, very bad judgment.”

Hudgens said all agents must take continuing education classes — including three hours of ethics training — to be eligible to renew their licenses each year.

“I can assure you John Oxendine is going to have to meet that requirement in Ralph Hudgens’ administration,” he said.

How we got the story

Acting on a tip, an AJC reporter who has covered John Oxendine since he was first a candidate for insurance commissioner in 1994 used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain his application for several insurance licenses and a report detailing which ones he received and when. The reporter then talked to Oxendine, his successor, lawmakers in the insurance business and industry officials.