Citizens Property Insurance deal criticized as political payoffs

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMay 22, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Two months after contributing $110,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign, an upstart property insurance company is likely to reap a $52 million windfall, paid by Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

Sitting on a record cash surplus of $6.4 billion, Citizens is hoping to ink a special deal Wednesday with Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance Co., a St. Petersburg firm that opened for business nine months ago and made significant political contributions.

Heritage donated more than $140,000 to Scott and the Republican Party of Florida and spent tens of thousands more lobbying the Legislature.

Now it's in line to get special treatment from Florida's state-run insurance firm in the form of an unusual and lucrative "reinsurance quota share" agreement.

If the Citizens board of governors approves Wednesday, the state-run insurer will pay Heritage up to $52 million to take over 60,000 policies at about $866 a piece.

"It's an opportunity to get this deal done prior to the next hurricane season," said Citizens CFO Sharon Binnun, defending the multimillion-dollar payment. "It's an opportunity for Citizens to get another 50,000 policies off the books before another hurricane season."

The proposal is the latest effort in Citizens' controversial and aggressive campaign to reduce risk and revive the private insurance market.

Proponents say the push to shrink Citizens will pay off when the next hurricane hits, saving consumers from having to bail out the state-run insurer.

Critics see the campaign cash and lobbying by Heritage as evidence Citizens and Scott are tapping the insurer's $6.4 billion surplus for special giveaways to politically connected companies.

"Citizens' board continues to fall prey to Tallahassee lobbyists who cook up these get rich funding schemes," said state Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami.

Scott's office said the governor played no role in the $52 million deal at Citizens, and campaign contributions were not a factor.

"We expect (the board) to approve or disapprove of this risk transfer based solely on its merits," said Melissa Sellers, a spokeswoman for Scott. "Anything short of that would harm Citizens policyholders and Florida residents who back Citizens policies."

Heritage President Richard Widdicombe declined comment.

It's the second time this year Citizens is looking to subsidize an upstart private insurer using its massive surplus built up over seven years as the state has dodged hurricanes. The next hurricane season starts June 1.

In February, Citizens' board approved a deal with Weston Insurance, agreeing to pay the young company $63 million to take out 30,000 policies. Weston spent more than $250,000 lobbying this year, and two of Citizens' seven board members abstained from voting due to conflicts of interest.

In both deals, the payments are structured as backdated "reinsurance" agreements, where Citizens essentially pays the company to cover losses on certain policies over a specified period of time. Since the period of time is in the past, the company can actively select policies with no losses, in effect making the deal virtually risk-free.

Ever since Citizens began floating the idea of transferring millions of surplus dollars to private companies last year, critics have blasted the deals as "corporate welfare" and said they lack transparency. The Heritage proposal became public just this week, after state regulators approved it. The company could begin taking policies out of Citizens next month.

Citizens said the deals make good financial sense, and the Heritage proposal will help the state-run insurer reduce losses by $280 million in the event of a once-in-a-century hurricane.

The state-run insurer of 1.3 million policies can levy charges on consumers if a major storm wipes out its surplus, and the threat of "hurricane taxes" is driving the push to downsize.

According to Citizens, some private companies need special incentives before they will agree to take over policies, and the company's record surplus allows it to provide a cash buffer to smaller private firms. Without the transfers, the newly formed companies likely would not have enough capital to acquire Citizens' policies. With low reserves, they could go belly up after a major hurricane.

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