Consumer eViews
FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER TOM GALLAGHER'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 3, Number 11, March 13, 2006

SUNSHINE KEEPS DEMOCRACY BURNING BRIGHTLY

Many of us have never lived without electricity.  We use it to air condition our homes, cook a meal, or read a good book at night, but don’t give much thought to what it takes to make that possible.  But when the electricity goes out, we realize how much we depend on it.  We need to look no further than last year’s hurricane season to be reminded of this.

I believe the same holds true for open government.  We live in a state that guarantees the public’s access to government while it is making decisions or carrying out its responsibilities.  Our constitution and our laws support and enforce this fundamental right for our citizens.  As a result, most of us have never known what it is like to live in fear or live in oppression because of government decisions made behind closed doors.  

Sunday marked the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to highlight the importance of open government.    

I have had the opportunity to serve Floridians for more than 30 years as an elected or appointed government official, and I have experienced what it is like to be on both sides of the door.  When I became the first Republican ever elected in Miami-Dade County to serve in the Florida House of Representatives in 1974, I was in the minority.   As a result, I had to work
hard to get information and access that was freely shared among members of the majority party. 

My early experiences as a state lawmaker taught me the value of our state’s sunshine laws and how important it is to protect the public’s right to access records and meetings of government.  I firmly believe that it is in the public’s best interest to know how government reaches decisions on their behalf.  Let’s look at the Florida Legislature, comprised of 160 lawmakers who make policy decisions for our state, as an example.   While legislative debates can become lively, heated and sometimes even uncomfortable, our elected representatives ask questions, express opinions and vote on the issues in the open.  The same holds true for a meeting of local officials or Congress – the public’s business must be done in public.

Positions I have held throughout my career have also led me to understand the need to protect information in certain circumstances. 

As the state’s Chief Financial Officer, I oversee both criminal and administrative agencies that investigate insurance fraud and misuse of public funds.   By law, records regarding ongoing investigations are not open to the public.  This is often a point of contention among journalists and concerned citizens anxious for a conclusion.  But the confidentiality of the ongoing investigation is often the most important tool an investigator has in gathering facts and statements.  It is only when the investigation is concluded that the details are open to the public.

Our sunshine laws are an effective tool for ensuring transparency in government but that transparency should not come at the expense of creating vulnerabilities for our citizens. That’s why the law provides for a few important exemptions.

The United States of America is a beacon of freedom and democracy throughout the world, and Sunshine Week is an opportunity to reflect on what keeps that beacon shining.   

Freedom of speech, freedom of information and freedom to participate in government are the principles this country was founded on.  And I believe that it is the concerned parent who attends a school board meeting, the frustrated citizens who attend a town hall meeting, and even the curious reporter who covers government in action who confirm for us that government in the sunshine works and are cornerstone to a healthy democracy. 

Just as electricity keeps a light bulb burning, a government that is open and accessible keeps the light of democracy burning.

-- Tom Gallagher


ON FIRST DAY OF 2006 SESSION, GALLAGHER RENEWS CALL FOR SOLUTIONS TO STABILIZE FLORIDA’S INSURANCE MARKET

Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, issued the following statement regarding his continued effort to secure rate relief for Florida’s property owners.

“I will continue to do my part to build support in the legislature for insurance rate relief for Floridians. Just last week, another key member of the Legislature added his name to the growing bipartisan list of legislators supporting my proposal.

“Refunding surplus tax revenue to offset the cost of insurance assessments is not a ‘bailout’ of Citizens; it is rate relief for Floridians. Whether we use surplus tax revenue for the people or not, Citizens will remain solvent – the Legislature made sure of that when they created Citizens. Our elected officials now have a choice: they can use surplus tax revenue to offset insurance assessments, or they can do nothing and let the burden fall to Floridians.

“With insurance rates rising, easing the financial burden on Florida’s homeowners is more important than ever. We have the money in the budget to take care of our state’s most pressing priorities, to provide tax-relief to Floridians as the Governor and legislative leaders have proposed, and to still return money to Floridians to ease the burden of past storms and offset the cost of preparing for this season.

“My proposal to use surplus tax revenue to offset insurance assessments is designed to provide short-term relief, but I have also offered a comprehensive roadmap to our legislature for long-term reforms. Implementation of the reforms I have proposed will provide immediate relief and will help keep our insurance market viable for the future.

“I am encouraged by the work of the Senate and House leaders and their commitment to reforming Florida’s insurance market, and I will continue to work with the Legislature on behalf of Florida’s home and property owners. Reforming Florida’s insurance market and fighting for homeowners is my top legislative priority this year.”


    GALLAGHER REVOKES LICENSE OF AGENT WHO LEFT HOMES AND BUSINESSES WITHOUT COVERAGE DURING 2005 HURRICANES
    Customers urged to verify coverage

    Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, has revoked the insurance agent license of Bruce Anthony Fonte, owner of Family Insurance of West Pasco, and is asking anyone who bought insurance from Fonte to call the Department of Financial Services’ Consumer Helpline to verify coverage.

    Fonte, 51, operated Family Insurance of West Pasco located at 6640 Ridge Road, and admitted leaving possibly dozens of home and business owners without insurance during the 2005 hurricane season. The revocation stems from an investigation conducted by the department’s Division of Agent and Agency Services, Bureau of Investigation, and Legal Services. The investigation began in January when Fonte was placed under an emergency order of suspension as allegations began to emerge.

    “This man robbed Floridians not only of their money but their sense of security,” said Gallagher, who oversees the department. “We want to make sure that no one is left without the coverage they need to protect their families, homes or livelihood.”

    Fonte failed to forward premiums to insurance companies to bind coverage for his clients, and instead used the premiums for personal expenses. Gallagher is asking anyone who bought insurance from Fonte to call the department’s Consumer Helpline at 1-800-342-2762 and also their insurance company to confirm coverage. DFS consumer specialists are available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

    “This is a tragic reminder that it may not be enough to review the documents, you may need to follow up with the insurance company to ensure coverage is in place,” Gallagher said. “Also, never pay in cash and never write a check to the insurance agent or agency. Always make the check payable to the insurance company that will provide the coverage. “

    The Department of Financial Services, Bureau of Investigation, investigates insurance agents and agencies concerning violations of the Florida insurance regulations. Anyone with information about this case or another possible insurance scheme should call the Department’s Consumer Assistance Hotline at 1-800-342-2762.


    FORMER AGENT CHARGED WITH STEALING $845,000 IN PREMIUMS

    Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, announced the arrest of a former insurance agent who is facing up to 180 years in prison for allegedly stealing more than $845,000 in insurance premiums intended to buy boat insurance for customers.

    John Paul Castagna, 46, who was the owner of Castagna Specialty Risk formerly located at 201 N. Federal Highway, Suite 111, and 265 S. Federal Highway, Suite 342, Deerfield Beach, was arrested Wednesday by detectives with the Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud. He was booked into the Broward County Jail on charges of misappropriation of insurance premium, two counts of grand theft in the first degree, four counts of grand theft in the second degree, and six counts of grand theft in the third degree. Bond was set at $48,500.

    “Every arrest of an individual engaged in insurance fraud brings greater stability and security to Florida’s insurance market,” said Gallagher, who oversees the department. “The detectives with the Division of Insurance Fraud who build these cases and bring down these criminals on almost a daily basis are unsung heroes who deserve our thanks.”

    The investigation determined that, from November 2001 through April 2004, Castagna engaged in an ongoing scheme wherein he accepted insurance premiums for marine insurance from insurance agents and did not forward the premiums to the insurance companies. In each instance, detectives said, Castagna received the insurance premiums from the agents and deposited the funds into his bank account. The charges against Castagna are based on 17 victims, including customers, insurance companies, insurance agents and finance companies.

    The department’s Division of Agent and Agency Services, Bureau of Investigation, revoked Castagna’s agent license last year and referred the case to the Division of Insurance Fraud for criminal investigation. The Broward County State Attorney's Office is prosecuting the charges.

    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 Fraud Fighter Hotline at 1-800-378-0445. A reward of up to $25,000 may be offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction.



    Consumer Services HelpLine
    (800) 342-2762