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Inquiry sought over insurance commissioner's lobbying

To help a friend, the state insurance chief called people in the industry he regulates.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published April 20, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's insurance commissioner solicited campaign money from lobbyists for the industry he regulates, urging them to attend a Wednesday night fundraiser for a judicial candidate whose husband also works in the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

Commissioner Kevin McCarty recently made phone calls and left messages seeking support for Robin Lotane, wife of OIR spokesman Bob Lotane.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, one of four Florida Cabinet members who control McCarty's job, has called for a state investigation.

"While what he did was not illegal, I thought it was highly inappropriate," said Sink, who had questioned McCarty about the fundraiser less than three hours before it was scheduled to start, during a briefing in her office. "For him to use his position title as the sole sponsor of this fundraiser and to be calling people he directly regulates, they felt like it was arm-twisting."

Relations between state insurance regulators and the industry have been particularly strained this year, as a popular uprising against rising premiums prompted lawmakers and the governor to push for lower rates.

Bob Lotane e-mailed invitations he created on a state computer a few weeks ago, which announced in bold blue letters that McCarty would be the featured host of a fundraiser for his wife, Robin, who is running for Leon County Circuit Court judge.

Insurance company employees, lobbyists and industry attorneys received the invitations and a followup phone call from a campaigner who said, "Commissioner Kevin McCarty will be there."

McCarty didn't know he was to be the prime sponsor of the fundraiser, his chief of staff, David Foy, said. McCarty, who could not be reached for comment, did not attend the fundraiser at the Governor's Club in Tallahassee.

Bob Lotane resigned on Thursday, and Robin Lotane was suspended with pay from her job as chief assistant state attorney.

McCarty did make some 25 calls on behalf of Robin Lotane, and some of those calls were to those in the insurance industry, Foy said. Foy said McCarty did not use state equipment or make calls on state time. It's illegal to use state resources for campaign purposes.

"I can't state what he was thinking," Foy said, "but he was asking, as a personal friend of Robin's, people he's known in the insurance industry dating back to the 1990s."

Gov. Charlie Crist said he thought Sink's "tone was appropriate, and I know she's going to look into it and we look forward to helping her."

Rep. Ron Reagan, a Bradenton Republican who controls a committee that determines insurance policy, said, "It was questionable for him to be the focus of attention at a fundraiser and asking people who want his attention to be there."

McCarty, 47, has worked for the state insurance department since 1991 and once was a trusted aide to Tom Gallagher, Sink's predecessor. In 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet made him the state's first appointed insurance commissioner.

Over the past few months, Crist and Sink have declined to say whether they planned to appoint someone new. Several weeks ago Crist had told McCarty, "God, I love you," after McCarty pledged his office would keep after insurers to lower rates.

Lobbyist William Stander of the Property and Casualty Insurance Association said he got a call from a Lotane campaign worker Wednesday morning, reminding him of the event and touting the appearance of McCarty. Stander said it deterred him from going.

"I just don't operate like that," Stander said.

Bob Lotane told the St. Petersburg Times in an e-mail that he started working on the fundraising invitation at work, but he finished it at home.

"It was never sent to anyone on a state computer, but it was still a terrible error in judgment for which I sincerely apologize to the commissioner, to all my superiors and to the people of Florida," Lotane wrote. "That is why I resigned my position this morning."

Robin Lotane was not available for comment.

Her boss, State Attorney Willie Meggs in Tallahassee, said she will remain suspended for possible violations of the election code. "I'm waiting on the chief financial officer to get me the results of their investigation," Meggs said.

Times staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.