Jim Beck, suspended commissioner of the Georgia Insurance Department. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Lawsuit alleges retaliation by Georgia’s indicted insurance chief

Three former employees of Georgia’s Department of Insurance have sued the state and indicted suspended Commissioner Jim Beck, saying they were ousted as retaliation because Beck thought they provided information about him to state and federal officials and the media.

The employees said they provided information either requested by their boss, the U.S. Attorney’s Office or through requests under the Georgia Open Records Act. Their lawyer, Ed Tarver, a former state senator and U.S. attorney, listed $1.25 million in damages in a letter to the Georgia Department of Administrative Services, and the lawsuit states they want to be reinstated to their jobs and get back pay and benefits.

Beck was indicted in May on charges alleging that he swindled his former employer out of $2 million, in part to fund his campaign for office last year. A grand jury in August added an additional count of mail fraud and four counts of aiding and assisting in the preparation of false tax returns for the 2014 through 2017 tax years.

Gov. Brian Kemp suspended Beck, who won election in November, a few days after his original indictment.

Beck has denied the charges. While he is suspended and fighting the charges, Beck continues to receive a $120,000-a-year state salary.

U.S. Attorney BJay Pak alleged in May that 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, 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.

In an effort to conceal a $2 million embezzlement scheme, federal prosecutors allege, Beck amplified business expenses to reduce his net business income. By inflating his business expenses by more than $1 million, Beck evaded income taxes due on the embezzled funds he received, the indictment says.

The three former staffers who filed the suit are Loranda Allen and Candice Sprague, who were assistants to past commissioners, and Sherry Mowell, who was the director of fraud investigation. Allen also served as human resources director for the agency.

An attorney for Beck said he wasn’t yet commissioner when the employees said they were told they’d lose their jobs, so he shouldn’t be part of the lawsuit.

“Quite clearly, a claim of wrongful termination by a public employer cannot be made against a private citizen who has not yet even been sworn in to office,” said Douglas Chalmers, one of the attorneys representing Beck. “The case against Jim Beck should be quickly dismissed.”

According to the lawsuit, the former longtime employees’ problems with Beck began in 2011, when he worked as then-Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens’ chief of staff.

They were involved in an investigation, ordered by Hudgens, that led to employees hired by Beck being fired or forced out, the lawsuit said, followed later by Beck being let go.

Then, while Beck was running to replace Hudgens last year, stories broke that arson was suspected in a fire that destroyed a house owned by Beck, and that federal officials were looking into whether he had held two jobs at the same time while working for the state. The candidate had insured his property through the Georgia Underwriting Association, which he ran, the lawsuit said.

One of the former employees prepared a synopsis of arson allegations for the district attorney in the Coweta Judicial Circuit, at the request of Georgia’s attorney general. Another complied with open records requests from the media and subpoenas from a grand jury seeking information about Beck’s work history.

The lawsuit says Beck blamed the employees for providing information to the news media and vowed to “clean the place up” once he took office. Each was told she wouldn’t have a job in Beck’s administration.

The employees, the lawsuit said, were “retaliated against by terminating their employment because they complied with lawful instructions and/or requests for information related to allegations of violations or noncompliance with the law.”

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