ATLANTA - The Carroll County District Attorney is reviewing a year-old arson of an Insurance Commissioner candidate's property.
A rental property belonging to Jim Beck was torched last March, says the local fire chief.
But questions about the case lead to a request by the attorney general to have the arson re-examined.
FOX 5 Senior I-Team reporter Dale Russell has been investigating the arson on his own.
The fire was reported at 1:30 AM March 11, 2017.
Later that morning, fire investigators, using an arson detection dog, found multiple areas that had "the presence of ignitable liquids."
Carrollton Fire Chief Jimmy Bearden concluded it was arson.
But, the FOX 5 I-Team found those liquid samples were not initially sent to the GBI crime lab for analysis. Chief Bearden blamed it on a mistake when a key employee handling the samples retired.
We took our findings to, Sara Henderson, the director of good government group, Common Cause.
Russell: Is it troubling to you that the local fire department didn't send the samples off?
Henderson: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Beck says he doesn't know who set the fire. He says someone stole cabinets and sinks from the house before the fire. Investigators questioned several teens caught vandalizing a nearby property. No arrests were made.
“I think it’s the fire investigator's theory that maybe somebody came back and burned it after it was burglarized and felt like they were destroying their fingerprints,” said Beck.
“Coupled with the fact that they didn't send the samples off immediately for testing, this doesn't seem like a very thorough investigation,” said Sara Henderson of Common Cause.
The FOX 5 I-Team began our own investigation of the fire. We learned officials in key offices throughout the state were curious about the arson as well.
In early May, an assistant attorney general wrote the Carroll County District Attorney about Beck's fire, calling it an "alleged arson/insurance fraud case" and wanted to know if the GBI should "assist and/or conduct an investigation."
District Attorney Herb Cranford told me the arson is “under review.” He is collecting information, to decide whether the GBI should be called in
Russell: Do you think the GBI needs to be called in to investigate?
Beck: I mean I'd love to know who did it so if they want to bring in the GBI that would be certainly fine.
This is what our investigation has found that is not found in the arson investigative files.
According to documents obtained by the FOX 5 I-Team, the property that burned down was covered by Georgia Underwriting Association, an insurance company created by the legislature for citizens in Georgia who have trouble getting insurance.
The general manager of the company at the time of the arson - Jim Beck.
“It was kind of a weird situation because it was insured by a company I worked for,” said Beck.
Beck told us he bought the home for $60,000. But on his application for insurance, the purchase price is listed as $95,000. Beck sought coverage for the higher amount.
Russell: Do you know why it would be ninety-five?
Beck: Well the agent fills out the application.
Russell: But, you signed it.
Beck: Yeah I did. I don't know. That would be news to me.
Beck filed a document saying he was doing an estimated "$40,000" in repairs on the property.
We checked with city and county building permits offices. There were no permits for repairs filed for the house on Highway 166.
Russell: That's a lot of work to be doing without work permits from the city or the county?
Beck: It's fairly common. You can talk to the county about that.
The FOX 5 I-Team did. County Building official told us any property owner should have county permits for extensive work. They often take people to court who don't get them.
We also saw some two weeks before the arson, Beck nearly doubled his insurance coverage, from $95,000 to $186,000.
Beck: So because, if for example, if you have an unfinished basement in your home and you finish it you really are under an obligation to tell the insurance company you've done it because you've materially changed what they are insuring, explained Beck.
Beck demolished the burned out house before he filed a claim some five months later. He said he was hoping the arsonist would be caught. Beck said to avoid any conflicts with an outside insurance company, using an independent adjuster was brought in to process his claim.
That outside insurance company executive later contributed to Beck's campaign – as well as Beck’s opponent. And another campaign contributor happens to be the same man who took pictures for Georgia Underwriting Association, documenting the fire damage to Beck's home.
Beck: He's my buddy.
Russell: Here's your buddy, should he be working on your claim? Beck: He didn't work on my claim; he just took pictures.
Beck says there is no conflict of interest in accepting contributions from these people. Sara Henderson disagrees.
“I'm assuming that those individuals didn't find any fault in Mr. Beck, and becoming contributors to his campaign, yeah that's a tremendous problem,” said Sara Henderson of Common Cause.
Jerome Guiney, the board chairman of Georgia Underwriting Association, sent this email to all board members after our interview with Mr. Beck:
For the sake of transparency, I want to make you aware of a media report that you may or may not hear about involving a claim for a rental property that Jim Beck had insured with the GUA. Jim was interviewed this afternoon by Dale Russell of Fox Five about the claim. I wanted to make sure that the GUA handled the Underwriting and the Claim in the proper manner. In September 2016 Jim’s Agent, Carroll Realty came to the GUA because the home was being renovated and they could not find coverage in the standard market. The Underwriting was pretty straightforward including several surcharges due to condition of the property. I have been assured by the Underwriting manager and I concur that we followed all of our standard procedures. Several months later (February 2017 ) there was a fire and the home was completely destroyed. The local Fire and Police Departments both responded and filed the usual reports. The Fire Department determined it was likely arson. A couple of days after the fire Jim called to notify me of the fire. He explained to me that he was considering not filing the claim with GUA because he didn’t want there to be any appearance of impropriety (he was conscious of the fact that he could be running for Insurance Commissioner in the future). I encouraged Jim to file the claim explaining that if he did we would figure out a way to remove him from having any authority over the handling of the claim. I spoke to Al Barnett, head of the Claims committee and asked if his company (Georgia Farm Bureau ) could handle the administration of the claim. He agreed that they could and that to go even a step further they would have an Independent Adjuster work the claim. After several months of hoping the authorities would find the perpetrator Jim decided to file the claim in August. We put the original plan into place and the claim was investigated by an Independent Adjuster administered by GA Farm Bureau. A payment was made and the claim was closed in September of 2017.
In short, I feel completely confident that the Underwriting and Claim was handled by the book. We went to great lengths to avoid any conflict of interest in the process.