OPINION: Oxendine was always Teflon. So, is ‘The Ox’ finally gored?

Former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine faced frequent scrutiny from the media during his 16 years in statewide office. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

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Former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine faced frequent scrutiny from the media during his 16 years in statewide office. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Journalists enjoy connecting dots when it comes to politicians, power and money. And John Oxendine, who was the state’s longtime insurance commissioner and a one-time front-runner in a race for governor, has always been surrounded by a constellation of intertwining dots.

For decades, Oxendine, a likable and ambitious fellow, always appeared to be in the thick of it, the “it” being controversy, investigation or trying to ‘splain away something troublesome.

It also seemed the oft-examined Oxendine was a bubble-wrapped character, someone able to duck, dodge and deflect the blows headed his way.

Earlier this month, the state ethics commission cut Oxendine loose after 13 years of investigation, allowing him to turn over $128,000 in funds remaining in the campaign account from his 2010 run for governor.

The ethics allegations said Oxendine’s “gubernatorial campaign took more than 10 times the legal limit in contributions from a Georgia insurer and that he illegally used campaign money for expensive car leases, child care for his kids and a down payment on a Buckhead home,” wrote Atlanta Journal-Constitution legislative reporter James Salzer, who has long highlighted Oxendine’s antics.

The investigation kicked off in 2009 after a series of AJC stories when it seemed The Ox might become our next governor. In 2015, Salzer reinvigorated the investigation when he discovered $500,000 in leftover campaign funds had vanished from Oxendine’s reports. Whoops, filing error, the former candidate replied.

Later, Oxendine reported there was actually $700,000 left. But after years of attorneys fees and whatever other spending, Oxendine this month agreed to turn over pennies on the dollar to the state and the toothless ethics commission agreed to leave him be.

Oxendine muttered that the “witch hunt” was over.

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Former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine raised $3.9 million in his 2010 bid for governor for political ads such as this one. About $750,000 was for a runoff and general election that he never ran.

Former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine raised $3.9 million in his 2010 bid for governor for political ads such as this one. About $750,000 was for a runoff and general election that he never ran.

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Former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine raised $3.9 million in his 2010 bid for governor for political ads such as this one. About $750,000 was for a runoff and general election that he never ran.

But the sigh of relief had barely left his lungs when the feds a week later indicted him on charges of health care fraud and money laundering. Prosecutors alleged a convoluted plot where a Texas-based lab company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks to Oxendine and an Alpharetta doctor and the loot was then laundered through Oxendine’s insurance services business.

Oxendine’s criminal defense lawyer, Drew Findling, released a statement saying his client is a former public servant, a lawyer, the “son of a well-respected Judge,” as well as a husband, father, stepfather and grandfather. He didn’t say if Oxendine owns a cute puppy.

Findling said Oxendine is innocent and “has been targeted in this investigation because of his name and gravitas.”

“Gravitas” may not have been the right word. Shameless might have been better. Or audacious. Maybe even foolhardy.

This is a guy who on his last full day as insurance commissioner issued himself licenses to sell insurance and adjust claims without having to take the mandated classes or licensing tests. He was Insurance Commissioner, after all! This allowed him to waive such bothersome requirements.

The Ox had a good run in politics (four terms from 1995-2010), sustaining a career with contributions from those working for companies his office regulates. That is, at least $2.6 million of the $6.6 million his campaign money collected from 1998 to 2008, or 40%, came from employees and owners of insurance and small-loan businesses, according to a 2009 AJC story.

That is noting new with regards to how that office has operated. It’s just Oxendine did it better.

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Macon/Bibb Counties EMA Director, Johnny Wingers (left) speaks with state Insurance commissioner John Oxendine after he landed in Macon Thursday.

Credit: John Spink

Macon/Bibb Counties EMA Director, Johnny Wingers (left) speaks with state Insurance commissioner John Oxendine after he landed in Macon Thursday.

Credit: John Spink

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Macon/Bibb Counties EMA Director, Johnny Wingers (left) speaks with state Insurance commissioner John Oxendine after he landed in Macon Thursday.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

It turns out Oxendine was under investigation by then-state Attorney General Mike Bowers not long after Oxendine came into office. Years later, the AJC got documents showing there were allegations that Oxendine pressured insurance companies seeking rate increases to hire attorneys who supported his campaign. Bowers turned the investigation over to the feds but nothing came of it.

Oxendine has long had the image of a rascal. He’s been mentioned 1,902 times in the AJC, the first being in 1988 when he, then a Democrat, bused about 40 mentally challenged registered voters to a presidential delegate election in hopes of getting named as a delegate for Al Gore.

Longtime lobbyist Neill Herring described Oxendine as “all presence, no substance,” the beneficiary of name voters recognize. “No way around it, ‘The Ox’ is a great nickname,” he said.

Oxendine always loved the limelight, as well as the blue lights and siren installed on his specially — and luxuriously — equipped state cars, often speeding to fires or other emergencies. (Remember, his official title was Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner.) In 1997, he wrecked a car, slamming into trees. In 1999, he ran a stoplight and collided with a pickup truck.

He said he was headed to a legitimate call but an investigation determined he often used the blue lights to beat traffic while driving to news conferences, meetings and even to once pick up his son for dinner.

It just seems he Ox was misplaced in his career. He could have done well as Atlanta mayor.