Gov. Brian Kemp didn’t pick anyone from Georgia’s insurance industry or one of the usual partisans to replace suspended Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck a month after he was indicted by the federal goverment.
Kemp said Wednesday that he wanted someone who could restore public trust in the Department of Insurance, which was rattled when Beck was accused in a 38-count indictment of developing an elaborate scheme to steal $2 million from his former employer before winning the November election.
The governor chose Doraville Police Chief John King, a major general in the Georgia National Guard, a native of Mexico and a man Kemp called “an American hero.” Once sworn in to at least temporarily replace Beck, King will be the first Hispanic constitutional officer in Georgia history.
Kemp said King fit what he was looking for when he sought to replace Beck.
“No. 1, we have to have a person of very high integrity in the current situation we are in, and we need somebody that can lead a large organization, that is organized, who can restore trust,” Kemp told reporters at a Capitol press conference. “I think John King has an impeccable record of service in the military, as a police chief, of doing that.”
King will be sworn in as acting commissioner after he returns from Texas, where he is leading hurricane preparedness training and operations, the governor said.
He will replace Beck pending adjudication of his case. King is expected to run either in a special election in 2020 or for a full term in 2022, when Kemp will also be on the ballot seeking re-election. Kemp’s aides wanted to narrow his choice to candidates willing to be on the ticket that year.
King has extensive law enforcement and military experience but no insurance background. Through the National Guard, he’s deployed to combat in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan. Before joining the Doraville Police Department, he worked as an Atlanta police officer and detective. He has been Doraville’s chief since 2002.
The agency that the commissioner runs regulates insurance and small-loan businesses. The commissioner also serves as the state fire marshal.
In a statement, King said: “My decades of experience in law enforcement have prepared me for this important job in state government. I look forward to restoring trust in the Department of Insurance and providing leadership that protects consumers, promotes public safety, and provides a bright and promising future for all Georgians.”
Beck, a Republican, sent a letter to Kemp on May 16 asking to be suspended pending the outcome of the case.
While he is suspended, Beck is continuing to draw a $120,000 commissioner’s salary. King will also be paid the commissioner’s salary.
In his letter to Kemp, the 57-year-old Beck declared his innocence but said “preparing for that trial will be a significant distraction from my public duties.”
U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak said Beck, an ex-insurance lobbyist and former leader of the Georgia Christian Coalition, used the stolen cash to pay personal credit card bills and taxes, as well as pumping money into his 2018 campaign for insurance commissioner.
The evidence shows Beck lied to close friends he’s known for 25 years and a family member to get them to create companies to send invoices to the Georgia Underwriters Association, Pak said. The invoices were often for work that wasn’t actually done, and Beck funneled the money back to himself, according to the indictment.
Beck won election in 2018, borrowing about $1 million and putting about $400,000 from his own bank account into the race, most of it to win the May Republican primary. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, he raised relatively little outside money to best two GOP challengers.
He filed a personal financial disclosure last year that showed a net worth of $3.7 million and no liabilities.
Georgia has a long and colorful history of elected state insurance commissioners.
After years of sky-high auto insurance rate hikes, voters elected Democrat Tim Ryles in 1990 on the promise that he wouldn’t approve any increases. He didn’t, but he also angered the politically powerful insurance industry, and it backed Republican John Oxendine against him in 1994.
Oxendine ousted Ryles and went on to serve four terms. While raking in campaign contributions from the insurance industry, the media-savvy Oxendine sometimes took a populist, pro-consumer stance and went after companies that he felt got out of line. He ran for governor in 2010 and for a time was viewed as a front-runner in the race, but he failed to make the Republican primary runoff.
Even before the election, ethics complaints were filed against him accusing his campaign of taking illegal contributions from an insurance company. That case is still pending, as is a later ethics complaint that alleges that he illegally used campaign money for personal gain.
Oxendne’s replacement was Ralph Hudgens, a former Republican state senator who made obstruction of Obamacare a top priority. His tenure was also marked by some of the highest auto insurance rate hikes in the country, something Hudgens said he couldn’t do anything about because of a state law he supported while he served in the Senate.
Hudgens decided not to run for a third term. Beck beat Hudgens’ handpicked candidate in last spring’s Republican primary and then won the November election.
King’s Doraville Police Department is involved in a lawsuit accusing the city of using excessive fines and fees — including from traffic tickets — to pad its budget. The lawsuit argues that that the city’s police officers and municipal court feel pressure to write citations for minor violations and that its processes violate due process and other civil rights for those charged with infractions.
A 2014 story in the AJC detailed Doraville’s reputation as a speed trap and found that the city collected more traffic fines per capita than any other in metro Atlanta. The city ranks sixth among U.S. towns with 5,000 or more residents when it comes to the percentage of total revenue that comes from fines, fees and forfeitures, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
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