ATLANTA (FOX 5 Atlanta) - A FOX 5 I-Team investigation found that the under then Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck, the department closed a criminal investigation at the request of Beck's former boss and campaign contributor, John Oxendine.
A federal grand jury has since indicted Beck on unrelated fraud charges. In addition, the state ethics commission is prosecuting Oxendine on allegations he violated campaign finance laws.
FOX 5 I-Team reporter Dale Russell says after he asked to review the case file the new Insurance Commissioner John King reopened the investigation.
The investigation revolved around allegations that a middle Georgia insurance company charged customers for extra products that the customers did not know about and did not request. In addition, three months after taking office, Jim Beck's department shut the investigation down.
Good government watchdog, Sara Henderson, was surprised that then Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck’s department would shut down a 3-year-old investigation at the request of a campaign contributor who was once Beck's boss.
“There is a serious problem. This is a huge investigation,” said Henderson
The investigation began in Cordele Georgia in 2016 when Insurance department agents raided Southern Harvest Insurance agency. The agency has since been sold to another company.
According to the case file, obtained by the FOX 5 I-Team under the Georgia Open Records Act, agents worked the case for nearly three years.
The files show the investigation began when one woman complained that an agent added an accidental death and dismemberment policy to her contract without her knowledge. She wrote: “This is not my signature. I did not ask for this insurance." The policy cost an extra $120 a year.
“That's crazy. It's absolutely crazy that that happened. And, it happened to vulnerable communities in our state. That is the most sickening part of this,” said the head of Common Cause, Sara Henderson.
Georgia insurance department agents investigated. They conducted dozens of interviews with customers and insurance agents. The state mailed questionnaires to Southern Harvest customers to see if they knew they were charged extra for an accidental death policy.
One question on the survey: Were you aware you were paying for accidental death and dismemberment? Three hundred and ninety-five people wrote no, they did not know. Five people responded they did know.
“That is crazy. That right there tells us, there are enough people harmed by this, this investigation needs to be, we need to be prosecuting these folks to the fullest extent of the law,” said Henderson.
As the complex case slowly unfolded, voters elected a new insurance Commissioner: Jim Beck. According to the file, three months after Beck took office; former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine - representing Southern Harvest Insurance - convinced the department to shut down the nearly 3-year-old investigation.
According to his LinkedIn page, Beck was once Deputy Insurance Commissioner under Oxendine. Oxendine contributed to Beck's campaign.
Oxendine argued that one insurance agent made a terrible mistake by jumping the gun" and "clearly attempts to manufacture evidence."
The file shows after attorney Oxendine made his argument, there were discussions inside the insurance department concerning a potential consent order with Southern Harvest. One staffer, according to the memo, thought Southern Harvest "should be fined and be put on probation." However, it didn't happen. The next day the case was closed.
John Oxendine wrote to say it was only misconduct by "one (1) isolated agent" who was fired. After nearly three years, there was "no credible evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Southern Harvest."
“The whole idea of agencies of the government is to protect consumers. Protect citizens. And, that clearly has not happened in this case,” said Henderson.
An internal memo in Attorney General Chris Carr's office states there was not enough evidence of "theft, forgery," to prove "a scheme to deceive customers." Carr's spokesperson told Russell the attorney general did not know about John Oxendine's role in the case.
One month after the case was closed - John Oxendine contributed $14,000 to Beck's campaign. The maximum amount.
“It looks awful. It looks like a political deal was made at the expense of Georgia consumers,” said Henderson.
Oxendine told me there was no connection between the case and the contribution. He said: "Beck was the sitting (Insurance) commissioner. I was going to max out (my contribution) to him anyway."
New Insurance Commissioner John King learned about the closing of the case from the FOX 5 I-Team. After he reviewed the case file, he reopened the investigation, now concentrating on the actions of individual agents who may have added products and costs onto unsuspecting customer's policies.