Despite consumer group criticism of a “revolving door” between state insurance departments and the industry being regulated, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley tapped another former insurance company executive to fill the commissioner’s post left vacant when the prior regulator signed on to do lobbying and other work for a reinsurer.
Gov. Riley, a Republican, appointed as the state’s new commissioner Jim L. Ridling, a past president and chief executive officer of Southern Guaranty Insurance Company, a Montgomery, Ala.-based property-casualty insurer of personal and commercial lines.
The state’s last head regulator, Walter Bell, resigned last month to become chairman of Swiss Re America Holding Corp. Besides directing regulatory affairs and lobbying regulators, the company said Mr. Bell would provide supervisory governance of business in the Americas.
Mr. Bell’s move drew a complaint to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners–of which Mr. Bell once served as president–as 14 consumer groups sent a letter expressing dismay over the “revolving door” between the insurance industry and those who supervise it, contending it raised questions of influence and undermined public confidence.
A conflict-of-interest policy for commissioners was adopted and became NAIC policy in March, but technically Mr. Bell does not appear to violate that policy because he is working for a holding company over which he had no direct supervision. In addition, Mr. Bell said he would not be dealing with the Alabama legislature or regulators, and will be relocating to New York.
Mr. Ridling will start as Alabama’s new insurance commissioner on Sept. 15.
In addition to being involved in insurance and banking, contribution records show that Mr. Ridling over the years has been a generous donor to national and state Republican causes.
In naming Mr. Ridling and another state official unrelated to insurance oversight, the governor said his appointees “have distinguished careers of leadership in their fields. Their extensive knowledge and understanding of the issues their agencies face make them great assets to my cabinet and to the citizens of Alabama.”
Mr. Ridling said he appreciates that the insurance department “is not only a regulatory agency, it is also a consumer protection agency. In fact, our number-one priority is to protect insurance consumers and promote a healthy marketplace. I am grateful for this opportunity to put my experience to work in public service.”
Meanwhile, work is continuing on a conflict-of-interest policy for consumer representatives funded by the NAIC to attend its meetings, in preparation for the regulator organization’s quarterly meeting next week in Washington, D.C.
During a recent discussion between commissioners and funded reps during a session of the Consumer Board of Trustees, it was suggested that examples should be developed as guidelines in determining when industry-related compensation can and cannot be accepted.
Toward that end, Birny Birnbaum, a funded consumer rep and executive director with the Center for Economic Justice in Austin, Texas, offered some examples that could be considered for further discussion.
Among the examples he offers are compensation such as:
o Travel expense reimbursement or an honorarium to speak to a trade association of regulated entities, or to testify on behalf of such entities before a state legislative, administrative or other policy-making entity.
oA contribution for general support of a consumer organization from regulated entities, or for services provided to the regulated entity to ensure compliance with state and federal laws.
o A payment for withdrawing an objection to a class-action lawsuit settlement to improve the settlement for consumers.
o A grant to fund research by the individual or her organization.
Mr. Birnbaum asks questions about the possible guidelines, such as whether these examples are a conflict of interest and whether they require disclosure or some other form of action.
(Jim Connolly is a senior editor with NU’s Life & Health edition.)