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FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER TOM GALLAGHER'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 2, Number 34, August 22, 2005   

Methamphetamine or “meth” is rapidly becoming a high-level threat to our families, our communities and those on the front line – our law enforcement, fire personnel and first responders.   

I had the opportunity to learn about meth’s powerful addiction and destruction from Jeana Prescott, a young woman from Caryville who used meth for six years and was arrested three times before turning her life around.  Off of meth for more than two years, Jeana now serves as a counselor at a faith-based treatment center for meth addicts in her hometown.  

Jeana is not the drug’s only victim. 

Sheriff Dennis Lee from Holmes County recently shared a story about a 9-month old infant breastfeeding from his mother who was high on meth at the time of her arrest.  The infant spent three days awake and screaming while withdrawing from the drug.  According to Sheriff Lee, at least half of the children found at raided meth labs have the drug in their systems.

But the horrific damage does not end there.

State arson investigator Robert Johnson and Deputy Sheriff Pete Spurlock from Columbia County recently shared their experiences at a meth lab bust where both were exposed to red phosphorous fumes – poisonous to humans and lethal at concentrated levels.  Both were hospitalized from the fumes and say they felt the effects for months after.

The number of meth lab seizures has skyrocketed more than 1,100 percent in four years, leaving our law enforcement and first responders vulnerable to serious injury or death.

As State Fire Marshal, I have a responsibility to take action and to protect our communities and first responders.  Today I announced a package of proposals designed to build more teamwork among agencies dealing with meth, toughen penalties for those who manufacture the drug, provide resources to restore users and victims, and better protect children exposed to meth.

We need to rapidly expand our response and combat this evil drug before it spreads.

To learn more, visit our website at www.MyFloridaCFO.com/fightmeth.

 

                     -- Tom Gallagher


GALLAGHER CALLS FOR EXPANDED RESPONSE TO FIGHT FLORIDA’S MOST DANGEROUS DRUG

Florida’s State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher announced an expanded, comprehensive strategy to combat methamphetamine or “meth,” including a call for increased coordination between state agencies, the creation of a Meth Strike Force, increased criminal penalties for meth producers, and the establishment of trust funds to clean up meth lab sites and help meth victims, including children.  Joining Gallagher in support of expanded efforts was Director James McDonough, Florida Office of Drug Control.
“Meth is a high-level threat to our communities and has the potential to destroy our communities one by one,” Gallagher said. “Jails are overflowing with meth producers and users, and almost half of all children found living in meth labs need urgent medical care and intervention. Strong steps have already been taken, but we need to rapidly expand our response to combat this evil drug.”

“Meth is the number one drug threat facing Florida,” said McDonough, whose office is leading a statewide meth working group made up of private and public sector agencies addressing meth.

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, there were 28 meth labs seized in Florida in 2001.  Last year, the number rose to 332.   Since 2004, the State Fire Marshal’s Office has responded to more than 30 fires or explosions at meth labs. In June, Gallagher launched a series of training programs to provide those on the front lines with tools to deal with the new risk they face.

Among the proposals Gallagher is advocating:

Creation of a Meth Strike Force:  To assist local law enforcement agencies in communities identified as meth hot spots, Gallagher is urging the creation of a Meth Strike Force that will enhance local efforts to crack down on meth; assist in response, cleanup and disposal of clandestine meth labs; and provide assistance to families destroyed by meth.

Tougher Penalties for Meth-related Crimes: Upon posting bond, meth manufacturers often return to their labs and start producing again.  To stop the revolving door, Gallagher is proposing that bond be denied for meth producers.

State Fire Marshal Gallagher is also pursuing penalties for property owners who knowingly fail to disclose that a meth lab was previously found on the premises. 

In June, Gallagher pledged to pursue legislation to heighten penalties for all first responders injured while responding to a meth lab. Legislation, sponsored by Rep. Greg Evers, passed earlier this year enhanced penalties for meth producers who injure a law enforcement officer, but it did not extend to firefighters and other first responders who are also often called to respond to a meth lab. Gallagher will work with Rep. Evers and other legislative leaders to correct this omission.

Protecting Children Exposed to Meth:  According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, meth lab accidents burned 48 children and killed one child in 2003.  After hearing stories of children crawling in spilled chemicals and playing near toxic burn piles, Gallagher is proposing that children of meth manufacturers be immediately removed from the home to get them out of harm’s way and provide them with urgent medical attention.

Creation of a “Victims of Meth Labs” Trust Fund:  Cleaning up a site used as a meth lab is expensive.  Not only must the site be cleaned but frequently the areas around the site must be decontaminated as well.  According to a report by the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, for every pound of meth produced, 5 to 7 pounds of toxic materials remain. Gallagher is recommending the creation of a “Victims of Meth Labs” Trust Fund. Anyone convicted of manufacturing or distributing meth would be required to forfeit assets to the fund.  

Creation of a “Restoring Lives” Trust Fund:  To get direct assistance to victims, including children, Gallagher is seeking to create a “Restoring Lives’ trust fund using the forfeited funds.  This fund would provide matching funds for private charities and ministries that collect funds to assist meth users and their children.

In Holmes County, counseling and treatment for meth addicts is available through a faith-based treatment program called Countywide Anti-Substance Abuse Effort (C.A.S.E).

Jeana Prescott, a former meth addict, is a C.A.S.E. counselor. “More than 90 percent of the people in our jail are meth addicts,” Prescott said.  “Funds for intervention and treatment are critical to turning a meth user’s life around.”

Establish a State Meth Tip Line:  Community self-policing is one of the most important weapons in the war on drugs.  Gallagher is proposing an anonymous toll-free tip line be set up for people to call and provide leads on meth manufacturers.

Joining Gallagher at the press conference today were Chief Deputy Harry Hamilton, Holmes County; Drug Commander Jerry Jewett, Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force, Columbia County; Deputy Sheriffs David Wingate and Pete Spurlock, Columbia County; Sergeant Keith Heston, Lake City Police Department; and Robin McDaniel, an FDLE special agent.

For more information on these courses and the meth problem in Florida, log onto http://www.MyFloridaCFO.com/fightmeth.


GALLAGHER CALLS FOR INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF STATE FARM’S RATE REQUEST

Citing concern that insurance companies are using the 2004 hurricanes to unfairly raise rates, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher called for an independent review of a rate increase on homeowners being sought by State Farm of Florida, the state’s largest insurer.   The independent review, the third review since June 1, will be carried out through Gallagher’s Consumer Advocate’s Office.

“This rate hike could potentially impact more than 900,000 Floridians and deserves close scrutiny,” Gallagher said.  “Even more troubling is that State Farm’s request comes on the heels of a study showing the company earned record profits – billions of dollars – in 2004, despite four hurricanes.” 

Gallagher has called for independent reviews of three rate requests – Allstate Floridian Insurance Company,
Cincinnati Indemnity Company/Insurance Company, and now State Farm.  Following reviews of the first two companies, Gallagher called for the rejection of both rate requests citing deficiencies and saying the “numbers just don’t add up.”   

Cincinnati’s request is the only one to date that has been denied by the Office of Insurance Regulation.  Allstate’s request is still pending.  The Office of Insurance Regulation is headed up by Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, who regulates insurance rates.

State Farm filed a request to raise homeowners insurance premiums by an average of 8.6 percent with the Office of Insurance Regulation yesterday.   But Gallagher said that the percentage amount that State Farm has requested is deceiving because in many areas, the rate burden would be as high as 40 percent. 

State Farm of Florida collected $1.03 billion in homeowners premiums in 2004.  An 8.6 percent increase means Florida homeowners would pay another $89 million in premium.

“State Farm customers deserve answers from their insurance provider.  And I intend on making sure that they get them," Gallagher said.
 


GALLAGHER ANNOUNCES ARRESTS OF 10 IN STAGED CRASH RING

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher announced the arrests of 10 people in a staged accident ring that involved 15 different medical clinics fraudulently billing auto insurers more than a million dollars for non-existent injuries.  The arrests are part of an ongoing crackdown by the Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud, to fight Personal Injury Protection insurance fraud, also known as PIP fraud. 

 
Those arrested today are facing a range of felony charges from grand theft to organized fraud.  Some of the suspects already have extensive criminal records.  The National Insurance Crime Bureau assisted in the three-month investigation, and Miami-Dade Police Robbery Intervention Detail units assisted with the arrests.
 
“It appears the potential for profits has lured the underbelly of the criminal world into the PIP fraud arena,” said CFO Gallagher, who oversees the department.  “I am proud of the work of our investigators to bring these people to justice, and we'll continue to aggressively pursue scam artists who set up these schemes."
 
Three of the participants in this ring were charged under a new law that became effective October 1, 2003, and face a minimum two-year prison sentence and could be sentenced up to 15 years in prison under the new sanctions. 
 
The suspected ringleader, Joaquin Noda Bellma, was arrested today on 21 counts of insurance fraud, 21 counts of grand theft and three counts of organized scheme to defraud in the first degree.  Noda Bellma has prior arrests for burglary, home invasion, vehicle theft and drugs and has served time in prison under different names.  Nine others, ranging in age from 20 to 64, are charged with participating in the staged accidents.
 
Gallagher said the division is investigating more than a dozen staged accidents suspected of being related to this ring, and more arrests are anticipated.
 
 “In the last five years alone, we've made nearly 1,000 PIP fraud-related arrests that add up to more than $27 million in fraudulent billings," said Gallagher. "These crimes drain our economy and raise costs for all Floridians.”

Florida drivers are required to carry a minimum of $10,000 in PIP coverage in addition to a minimum of $10,000 in property damage liability coverage.  In staged accidents, the planners and organizers, usually in connection with unscrupulous clinic owners, target the PIP insurance of drivers and bill an average of $10,000 to each participant’s auto insurance company.
 
This ring has been connected with staged accidents on October 12, 2002 that resulted in fraudulent claims totaling $562,193 ($33,598 paid); January 2, 2003 that resulted in fraudulent claims totaling $402,002 ($38,002 paid); July 3, 2003 that resulted in fraudulent claims totaling $81,995 ($62,803 paid); August 25, 2004, that resulted in fraudulent claims totaling $55,949 ($23,230 paid); and March 21, 2005, that resulted in fraudulent claims totaling $25,553.
 
The insurance companies who were billed are Direct General, the Florida Automobile Joint Underwriters Association, Republic Western, and State Farm. 
 
To help combat PIP fraud, the division entered into a partnership with the Florida Automobile Joint Underwriting Association and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office and hired a dedicated PIP fraud prosecutor.  In a little over a year, Nina Vivenzio has helped with the arrests of more than 300 individuals, resulting in more than 100 convictions.  As a result of this successful partnership, the Legislature funded another prosecutor position this year, and Gallagher said the state expects to hire the second dedicated PIP prosecutor for Miami-Dade before the end of the year.
 
The Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud, investigates various forms of fraud in insurance, including health, life, auto, property and workers' compensation insurance.  Anyone with information about this case or another possible fraud scheme should call the department's anti-fraud hotline at 1-800-378-0445.  A reward of up to $25,000 may be offered for information directly leading to an arrest and conviction.
 
A list of those arrested today is attached.  They all were booked into the Dade County Jail.
 
STAGED CRASH RING ARRESTS
 
Joaquin Noda Bellma (AKA El Gordo), 44, 721 NW 30 Court, Miami – insurance fraud, 21 counts; grand theft, 21 counts; organized scheme to defraud, 3 counts.
Daisy Duranza, 42, 965 East 24 St., Hialeah – insurance fraud, 6 counts; grand theft, 6 counts.
Roberto Duranza, 46, 965 East 24 St., Hialeah – insurance fraud, 6 counts; grand theft, 6 counts.
Roberto Duranza, Jr., 24, 965 East 24 St., Hialeah – insurance fraud, 6 counts; grand theft, 6 counts.
Olga Fernandez, 57, 15111 NW 29 Ave., Opa-Locka – insurance fraud, 3 counts; grand theft, 3 counts; staged accident, 1 count.
Pedro Herrera, 64, 3111 NW 27 St., Miami – insurance fraud, 17 counts; grand theft, 17 counts; staged accident, 1 count.
Heyllene Artemisa Jimenez, 32, 4605 NW 185 St.,Opa-Locka – insurance fraud, 3 counts; grand theft, 3 counts; staged accident, 1 count.
Carmen Mar Penarrieta, 42, 606 West 81 St. #315, Hialeah – insurance fraud, 5 counts; grand theft, 5 counts.
Lucy Ramos, 50, 3031 NW 19 Ave., #320, Miami – insurance fraud, 11 counts; grand theft ,11 counts.
Maria Rosa Silva, 20, 606 West 81 St. #315, Hialeah – insurance fraud, 16 counts; grand theft,16 counts.
 


Consumer Services HelpLine
(800) 342-2762.