During his candidacy to become Georgia’s next insurance commissioner, Jim Beck’s campaign ad spoofing a popular State Farm commercial was a hit.
Photo: Handout
Photo: Handout

Torpy at Large: Did Ga. insurance commish let his reform policy lapse?

Last year, as he campaigned to become Georgia’s insurance commissioner, Jim Beck did not get a primary election endorsement from his old boss, Republican Ralph Hudgens, who was retiring from the gig.

That was a good thing for Beck. In 2017, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote stories portraying Hudgens in particular, and his office in general, as an ineffectual vestige of consumer oversight. By then, the insurance commissioner was merely a political potted plant watching helplessly as car insurance companies jacked their rates, all the while sopping up campaign contributions from those in the business.

RELATED | Torpy at Large: You’re not in good hands with Hudgens

Beck, the former head of the Georgia Christian Coalition, ran as a homespun outsider and spoke of the relationship between the commissioner’s office and the industry it regulated: “It’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. The industry owns it, and it’s time the people owned it.”

Now, the Carrollton native wasn’t really that much of an outsider. He’d been an insurance lobbyist and was running the Georgia Underwriting Association, a state-created marketplace that allows Georgia homeowners who are considered “high-risk” to get property insurance.

Beck’s opponent, who got Hudgens’ support and lots of cash from the insurance industry, forced Beck to run a largely self-financed campaign. Beck loaned his campaign $741,000 and kicked in more than $350,000 of his own cash, which allowed him to cast himself as a lumpy, self-deprecating maverick who owed favors to no one.

Former Republican legislator Buzz Brockway, an unsuccessful candidate last year for secretary of state, saw Beck several times on the campaign trail.

“He seemed well received,” said Brockway. “He was funny, he had some ideas and grabbed attention with his ads,” a parody of the State Farm ads in which a man’s wife questions who he’s whispering to on the phone.

Beck cruised to election.

Four months into office, Beck seemed to be doing a pretty good job.

“He seemed to be a consumer-oriented commissioner, which would be a dramatic change,” said Tim Ryles, who was commissioner in the early 1990s.

Jim Beck, commissioner of the Georgia Insurance Department, speaks at a press conference about an insurance fraud bust on March 1, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Two weeks ago, the AJC wrote about Beck, noting he had added some consumer protection touches, such as improving the department’s website and publicly listing complaints against insurers. And he was working to bring transparency to the office.

Unfortunately for Beck, another kind of transparency entered his life — federal prosecutors unsealed the results of an investigation that looked into what he was up to in the years before his election. It wasn’t pretty.

Last week, the new insurance commissioner waddled into a federal court, shackled at the wrists and ankles, facing a judge and 38 criminal counts of fraud.

According to the indictment, Beck operated the Georgia Underwriting Association, the entity he headed, like his own ATM, allegedly siphoning away $2 million over a five-year period.

The money, according to feds, went to pay off credit card bills, fund retirement accounts, pay his taxes, buy and fix up rental property and — this one’s a beaut — fund his campaign for insurance commissioner.

So, if the charges are true (and the feds boast a 90 percent-plus conviction rate) then it would seem that Beck swindled an entity that he ran and was largely overseen by his old boss, the insurance commissioner, so he could get that job and do a better job watching out for the public.

I mean, Commissioner Beck sort of seems like he could be an altruistic guy, at least as far as alleged fraud masterminds go. Or maybe the power and perks of the job were the driving force.

Beck, in a letter last week, contended he was “innocent of these charges” and asked the governor to give him a “voluntary suspension” while he fights to clear his name.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Thursday for the immediate suspension of Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck.

The now-suspended commissioner has always been a go-getter. For years, he led the charge against Sunday alcohol sales and other sinful activities from his perch atop the Georgia Christian Coalition. It was a job that afforded him entry into politics and gave him political connections. And his campaign prominently trumpeted his “Christian” credentials because everyone knows Our Savior is bullish about low insurance rates.

Beck is also an accomplished double dipper, a complaint that surfaced during the election.

In 2005, he worked for the Department of Community Affairs and also hustled in the Capitol’s corridors as a lobbyist for Nationwide Insurance.

In 2012, he worked for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council as a victim-witness advocate while also running the Georgia Underwriting Association.

This week, Beck said the Georgia Underwriting Association made record profits under his oversight.

But Beck’s true genius, according to the feds, was in the art of subterfuge.

Starting in 2013, Beck allegedly persuaded three friends and a relative to form four separate businesses, “Companies A, B, C, and D,” which were to provide property inspections and water damage mitigation for the Georgia Underwriting Association.

Company “A,” according to the indictment, “had no employees, existed only to produce fraudulent invoices, collect payment for fraudulent invoices and redirect payments it received to Beck through Creative Consultants.” Other money went through the Georgia Christian Coalition.

The companies, as alleged, were like a game of three-card monte created to put the cash in the dealer’s pocket.

U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak, at the podium next to Chris Hacker, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Atlanta, announcing that Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

In late June, word came out that the feds were investigating Beck. But by then he had already won the Republican primary and industry money started flowing his way because business insiders like to back the perceived winner. And he did have an “R” after his name.

Still, according to U.S. Attorney BJay Pak, Beck kept stealing money until August. Mind you, this is two months after news reports said that the feds were sniffing around.

This either shows Beck is not guilty, has ice in his veins, is not as clever as he seems, or it took time to shut down and exit the nefarious operation and get about devoting himself to the good people of Georgia.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.