Beck’s fraud conviction clears up the insurance commissioner field for 2022

Jim Beck, commissioner of the Georgia Insurance Department, speaks at a press conference about an insurance fraud bust in a courtroom at the Clayton County Superior Court in Jonesboro , Georgia on Friday, March 1, 2019. Three victims of the insurance fraud, mainly elderly people, have been identified so far. EMILY HANEY / AJC

Credit: Emily Haney

Credit: Emily Haney

Jim Beck, commissioner of the Georgia Insurance Department, speaks at a press conference about an insurance fraud bust in a courtroom at the Clayton County Superior Court in Jonesboro , Georgia on Friday, March 1, 2019. Three victims of the insurance fraud, mainly elderly people, have been identified so far. EMILY HANEY / AJC

John King spent the past two years running the agency that regulates insurance in Georgia without knowing if he’d have a job today.

King, a former Doraville police chief and longtime Georgia National Guard general, was given the interim insurance commissioner title by Gov. Brian Kemp after the newly elected Commissioner Jim Beck was suspended over federal embezzlement charges.

If Beck was found not guilty, he would get his job back, and King would be out. But that didn’t happen.

A jury convicted Beck of 37 counts of fraud and money laundering Thursday, finding him guilty of orchestrating a scheme to embezzle more than $2 million from the Georgia Underwriting Association, his former employer. Prosecutors said the money helped finance his successful campaign for office in 2018. He will be sentenced Oct. 8.

Beck was indicted four months after taking office. He was suspended by Kemp, and has been drawing about $200,000 in salary and benefits a year, the same as King.

Now Beck will be off the payroll, and King — who has been campaigning for months for a full term in 2022 — has one less potential political opponent to worry about.

”I’ve never shied away from a challenge, and I took this one with gusto. The agency was adrift,” King said at a recent campaign event in a Cartersville coffee shop. “The governor asked me to clean up the agency, and that’s what we did.”

The state’s insurance commissioner regulates insurance and small loan businesses and serves as Georgia’s fire marshal. The office plays an important role in deciding how much consumers pay for insurance. But the races for four-year terms are often among the lowest profile on the statewide ballot.

Even in 2018, when Beck, a former Christian Coalition of Georgia president and a born campaigner ran, the race got little attention.

This time there may be a little more juice in the race. King, a Republican, is the first Hispanic appointed to a statewide office and he aims to be the first to win a statewide race. On the Democratic side, state Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, a trial lawyer, is seeking to become the first openly LGBTQ statewide elected official.

Wilson said he was glad to see Thursday’s verdict.

“The insurance department has been led for years by commissioners who value the public trust so little, it’s almost a relief to know that they can be held accountable like this, “ he said. “Georgians now have a choice in front of them: either we continue to reward the status quo by electing another commissioner working for the big insurance companies, or we elect new and independent leadership.”

King said on Thursday, “When Governor Kemp appointed me to this role, I was tasked with restoring integrity to this office and that’s been my main priority from day one. I look forward to continuing to move this agency in the future, leaving behind the corruption of the past and putting Georgia consumers first.”

Beck isn’t the first insurance commissioner to make headlines for the wrong reasons. Longtime former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine has been fighting ethics complaints for more than a decade, including charges that his 2010 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.

His successor, Ralph Hudgens, was accused of overspending his agency’s budget — forcing staff layoffs — and criticized for allowing auto insurance rates to skyrocket.

Incumbents traditionally load up their campaign accounts with money from insurance executives and agents, and small loan business operators. It gives the appearance of the regulated playing a big role in deciding who regulates them.

While on the campaign trail, King has told voters he’d lean on his record in public office and the decades as a small-town police chief, beat cop, and military man.

“All I have is my reputation,” he said. “When I first got into the agency, it was broken. There were people there who had no business serving. And there are some incredibly great people in that agency, they just needed someone to watch their back.”

In fund-raising mailings, King has used broader Republican talking points — unrelated to his job — to raise money.

In one, he accused the “radical left” of trying to defund and attack the police “when so many cities are facing record crime waves.” In another, he criticized Major League Baseball for pulling the All-Star game out of Atlanta over the state’s new elections bill, which critics say will most harm minority voters.

“They caved to pressure from the radical left and frankly should be ashamed of themselves.” he writes. “For thirty years, I have fought to protect our rights and freedoms in the Guard. Now, it’s time for Georgians to stand firm against this cancel culture and mob rule.”

Another fundraising email says illegal immigrants are pouring over the U.S. border, and “some of these people are trafficking drugs, children, or dangerous firearms.

“The open border’ policies of the radical left undermine our national security.”

As of June 30, King had raised just under $400,000 for his 2022 campaign and had $204,000 in the bank. Wilson had raised $120,000, with $80,000 in the bank. King has been raising money for the 2022 race since 2019. Wilson just started three months ago.

Wilson said King’s use of red-meat Republican rhetoric in a race for a job to regulate insurance is bound to fail.

“I think that the statewide Republicans have shown they don’t want to run on policies because they lose Georgia voters on policies,” Wilson said. “Their strategy appears to be to just hammer social issues and continue to divide the electorate and hope their voter suppression efforts add up for them on election day. I think that is a fundamental misreading of where voters are at and what they are looking for.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report

Our Reporting

The conviction of Jim Beck on fraud charges is only the latest of a number of problems and irregularities in the state Insurance Department.

Reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed Beck’s immediate predecessor, Ralph Hudgens, had overspent his agency’s budget, forcing staff layoffs.

John Oxendine, who preceded Hudgens, has been battling ethics complaints since making an unsuccessful run in 2010 for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The complaints, linked to Journal-Constitution reports, involve campaign donations from two insurance companies.

Beck’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 8.