Georgia has a state insurance commissioner again, seven weeks after the elected one, Jim Beck, was accused in a 38-count indictment of scheming to steal $2 million from his former employer, in part to fund his election campaign.
John King, the longtime Doraville police chief, was sworn in as Beck’s at-least-temporary replacement by Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday at a Statehouse ceremony.
Kemp announced King as acting commissioner in mid-June, but the major general in the Georgia National Guard was in Texas, where he was leading hurricane preparedness training and operations.
King, a native of Mexico whom Kemp has called “an American hero,” becomes the first Hispanic constitutional officer in Georgia history.
The agency that the commissioner runs regulates insurance and small-loan businesses. The commissioner also serves as the state fire marshal.
Before being sworn in Monday, King said his mission will be “to restore public trust in this department by doing the right thing.”
“I will work hard, lead with integrity, and always put Georgia families and consumers ahead of politics and special interests,” King said. “I will partner with the governor to lower insurance premiums and health care costs. We will work to address car insurance premiums that have crippled Georgia families. I will lead the effort to make the department transparent, accountable and effective.”
Kemp promised to work with King to drive down insurance costs.
“General King will partner with us to implement health care reforms that lower costs, reduce premiums, enhance access and put patients first,” the governor said. “He will root out corruption, tackle car insurance rates that are the highest in the country and put special interests in their place.”
King will replace Beck pending adjudication of his case. King said he will run 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.
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, and pump 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 his then-employer, 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.
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.
Oxendine’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.
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