Insurers account for much of Dale’s campaign donations

Published 9:11 pm Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale, running for re-election amid criticism of his handling of insurance companies after Hurricane Katrina, raised about 40 percent of his campaign funds last year from insurers and others with ties to the industry, according to records filed Tuesday.

At least $53,800 of the $133,350 that Dale raised in 2006 was donated by insurance companies, their political action committees or individuals who say they work in the industry, according to a report that Dale’s campaign filed Tuesday with the Secretary of State’s office.

Mississippi’s campaign finance and ethics laws do not prohibit insurance commissioners from accepting contributions from insurers or trade groups. Industry experts say most elected insurance commissioners rely heavily on donations from the companies they regulate.

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Dale, who announced earlier this month that he will seek re-election to the post he has held since 1975, said he sees nothing wrong with the practice.

“We take money from anybody who is interested in good government,” said Dale, who doesn’t have a challenger so far. He is the longest-tenured insurance commissioner in the nation.

Mississippi is one of 11 states, including Louisiana, where insurance commissioners are elected rather than appointed. Dale said elections make him more accountable to consumers.

“Even though there is that concern by some about where you get your money, (an election) probably gives us more independence than an appointed commissioner would have,” he added.

Former Texas Insurance Commissioner J. Robert Hunter, now the director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, said allowing elected insurance commissioners to accept donations from insurers “raises all kind of conflict-of-interest questions.”

“It’s unfortunate that there isn’t some sort of a prohibition on it,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Dale’s donors included the Property and Casualty Insurers Association of America, which represents more than 1,000 companies, and United Services Automobile Association. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has sued USAA and several other companies for denying policyholders’ claims after Katrina.

Insurers refused to pay for billions of dollars in damage from Katrina’s rising water after the Aug. 29, 2005 storm damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

Some of Dale’s critics claim he hasn’t been a forceful advocate for consumers after Katrina, but Dale has suggested he is a scapegoat for frustrated homeowners who don’t fully understand what authority he has to regulate the companies.

In defending his performance after Katrina, Hood points to the hundreds of homeowners who have resolved disputes with insurers through a mediation program offered by his office.

Dale, 66, raised most of his money during the last four months of 2006. He entered 2007 with $294,990 in cash on hand. Candidates have until March 1 to qualify for state office. Party primaries are Aug. 7 and the general election is Nov. 6.