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FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER TOM GALLAGHER'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 2, Number 18, May 2, 2005    

This is Arson Awareness Week, with this year's focus on fire prevention in our youngest population. Children are fascinated with fire from a young age, and must be taught early to respect the dangers of fire.

Of all serious crimes, arson is the one most often involving juveniles. Our youngest children must be protected from playing with matches and lighters, all children must be informed of the tragedy that can result from careless fire play, and our older ones must be educated about the seriousness of the offense. Arson is a crime, punishable by jail time and fines.

As State Fire Marshal, I support programs that help re-educate young arsonists to stop fire-setting behaviors.

The State Fire Marshal offices around the state will be offering a range of activities, from open houses at regional offices to in-school demonstrations and contests, aimed at teaching children about fire safety and the risks of playing with fire.  For a schedule of events, visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com/sfm.

We must all be vigilant to the dangers of arson and we must help protect our children.  Education and awareness about juvenile fire play and arson are our best defenses.

                      -- Tom Gallagher


GALLAGHER URGES FLORIDIANS TO HELP PREVENT DANGEROUS JUVENILE FIRE PLAY AND ARSON 

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher is urging Floridians to join the State Fire Marshal’s Office and local fire and law enforcement agencies in preventing youth from getting involved in fire play or arson.  Children are again the focus of Arson Awareness Week, which runs this week through May 7. 

“Juvenile fire play and arson have very costly consequences for the youths involved, their parents and their communities,” Gallagher said.  “Even though not all cases end in arrest – especially when very young children are involved – the consequences are just as real.”  

Among the cases investigated last year by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations:
 

  • A 4-year-old boy and his 71-year-old grandmother suffered third-degree burns after the boy set fire to a kitten and the burning kitten set fire to the house.  The boy hid when the fire began and his grandmother had to search to find him.  Detectives determined it was not the first time the boy had played with fire and abused animals.
  • A 7-year-old playing with a road flare in his bedroom caused a fire that severely damaged his home.  The family had no insurance.
  • A 5-year-old and an 18-month-old left alone in an apartment died after the older child found a lighter, began playing with it and started a fire.

During Arson Awareness Week, detectives from the State Fire Marshal’s Office will participate in a range of activities, from open houses at their regional offices to in-school demonstrations and contests, aimed at teaching children about fire safety and the risks of playing with fire.  For a schedule of events, visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com/sfm.

Meanwhile, legislation that Gallagher has pushed to protect patients in nursing homes has now passed the House and is headed for an anticipated vote in the Senate.  The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Webster and Rep. John Stargel, will require all of the state’s nursing homes to have automated fire sprinkler systems by 2009. 

The State Fire Marshal’s Office emphasizes education for elders and children. 

The department’s “Safe House Mouse” program offers tips for kids and suggestions for parents and teachers to share practical advice on how to prevent and escape fire.  That program can be found at http://www.MyFloridaCFO.com/SFM/SafeHouse/index.html.  And, the State Fire Marshal’s Office has created fire-safety bookmarks specifically targeting third-graders.

“Parents should not underestimate their children’s curiosity about fire,” Gallagher said. 

Gallagher said parents, guardians and teachers must teach children respect for fire and offered the following tips:
 

  • Keep matches and lighters out of children’s reach and sight.
  • Never play with matches or lighters in front of children.
  • Teach children to tell an adult if they find matches or a lighter.
  • Teach children to tell an adult if they see someone playing with matches or a lighter.
  • Teach them how to dial 911.

For older children, parents should point out some hard facts.  Arson is a crime, punishable by jail time and fines.  If they commit arson at school, they could be expelled.  If someone dies or is injured, they could be charged with murder or attempted murder. 

The State Fire Marshal’s Office supports and participates in several counties’ Juvenile Firesetting Intervention and Prevention Projects that aim to help turn-around young arsonists. The April 2005 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin features a cover article on juvenile arson.

Among the more than 2,200 fires that the State Fire Marshal’s Office ruled as arson in 2004, 69 Floridians died, 32 were injured and more than $50 million in property was damaged.  

Nationwide, children under the age of 18 are responsible for about half of all arsons. Further, arson has the highest rate of juvenile involvement of all serious crimes.  Of the 454 arson arrests state arson detectives made last year, 159 were juveniles.

The Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations is a law enforcement branch of the Division of State Fire Marshal that assists other state and local fire and law enforcement agencies in the investigation of fires of suspicious origin. 
 


GALLAGHER COMMENDS STATE LAWMAKERS FOR APPROVING INVESTOR PROTECTION LEGISLATION

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher applauded lawmakers for approving legislation to better protect Florida investors from viatical companies that commit fraud or fail to properly disclose the risks involved when investing in viatical settlements. The legislation, which would define viatical settlements as “securities,” was unanimously approved by the Florida House of Representatives. The Florida Senate passed the bill last week.  

“The legislation approved by lawmakers will enable us to proactively protect investors and aggressively pursue fraudulent practices in this industry,” said Gallagher, who oversees the Florida Department of Financial Services.

Gallagher thanked Senator Rudy Garcia from Miami and Representative Dudley Goodlette from Naples for their efforts to champion the legislation.  "I commend Senator Garcia and Representative Goodlette for the leadership and courage they displayed in promoting this legislation," he said.

Viatical settlement providers match those who want to sell their life insurance policies at a discount to investors willing to buy the rights to those policies.

For investors, the new law would mean access to company information, any promises made to investors would have to be documented and approved by state regulators, and a determination of the investment’s suitability would have to be considered, including the purchaser’s financial and tax status, and the purchaser’s investment objectives. 

To also better protect investors from fraud, the bill requires individuals who estimate the life expectancies on policies purchased by investors to be registered with the Office of Insurance Regulation.  Viatical settlement companies would also be required to provide regulators the names of the life expectancy providers it has used.   The legislation would also require brokers selling viaticals to be licensed with the Office of Financial Regulation.

Fraud in this industry has potentially cost investors up to $2 billion in losses since 1996. The average age of the investor defrauded is 70 years old and the average loss is $40,000.  Currently, Florida is one of only four states that doesn’t regulate investments in viaticals as securities. 

The bill now heads to Governor Bush for signature. 
 



FLORIDIANS WHO PARTICIPATE IN A STAGED CRASH STAND TO LOSE LICENSE UNDER FAST-TRACK PROCESS

Florida drivers who participate in a staged crash, regardless of whether they file a fraudulent insurance claim, not only face a minimum of two years in prison but now also stand to lose their driving privilege if convicted. 

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher today delivered to Fred Dickinson, Executive Director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, investigative files on 22 individuals whose licenses will be revoked under a fast-track process arranged by the two departments.  The individuals named in the files have been convicted of participating in staged crashes that defrauded insurers of more than $200,000. 

“These fraud schemes are a drain on our economy, but they also pose a very serious threat to public safety,” said Gallagher, who oversees the Department of Financial Services.  “These individuals are driving on our roads looking for an accident.  We’re going to do everything we can to get them off the road.”

Under Florida law, anyone who uses a vehicle in the commission of a felony – whether as a driver or a passenger – can have his/her license revoked.  A law enacted in 2003 made organizing or participating in a staged crash a second-degree felony punishable by a minimum mandatory two-year sentence.  So far, more than 70 people have been charged under that new law.

With this new fast-track process, the DHSMV will administratively suspend the driving privileges of those charged with a qualifying offense.  The department’s fraud division is expected to make more than 200 auto insurance fraud arrests this year.

“The people of Florida are the primary beneficiaries in this process,” Dickinson said.  “We intend to use the law to the fullest extent and put an end to these fraudulent crashes and claims.”

In the last five years, the Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud has arrested more than 900 people in connection with at least $25 million in auto insurance fraud.  It is estimated that auto insurance fraud costs the average Florida family as much as $250 a year in higher premiums and higher costs for goods and services.

Florida drivers are required to carry a minimum of $10,000 in Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance coverage and $10,000 in property damage coverage.  By staging crashes, the planners and participants – usually in connection with unscrupulous medical clinic owners – fraudulently bill auto insurance companies for medical treatments that never happened or were unnecessary.

Gallagher this year is promoting legislation to address the latest spin on PIP fraud – crashes that never happen.  The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Dean Cannon and Sen. J.D. Alexander, would extend the two-year mandatory sentence to anyone convicted of filing a fabricated accident report.  These “paper” and “phantom” accidents occur when someone reports a crash that never happened or reports a hit-and-run accident based on pre-existing damage.

The legislation, House Bill 967 and Senate Bill 2330, also would require medical clinics to post the department’s Fraud Buster hotline number and reward program information. 

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



CFO GALLAGHER SAYS LAKELAND NURSING HOME FIRE POINTS TO NEED FOR LEGISLATION TO REQUIRE SPRINKLERS

A fatal fire at a Lakeland nursing home should compel the Legislature to pass legislation to require all of the state’s nursing homes to have automated fire sprinkler systems by 2009, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher has stated. The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Daniel Webster and Rep. John Stargel.

A hospice patient died and another was hospitalized after a fire broke out at the Palm Terrace of Lakeland nursing home.  The hospice rents the wing from the nursing home. The building's sprinkler system was activated by the fire, and the fire was extinguished by the time firefighters arrived.  The State Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the fire along with the Lakeland Fire Department.

“I’m very sorry a life was lost, but I am very relieved to hear that the sprinkler system contained the fire and saved many more lives,” Gallagher said.  “A fire sprinkler system could be the difference between life and death for nursing home residents who are disabled or have limited mobility.”

Under the pending legislation, a loan guarantee program would be made available to help the estimated 35 nursing homes, mostly older facilities, that are not currently protected by any kind of sprinkler system. 

The nursing homes without fire sprinkler systems represent 4,200 beds, but regulators have estimated that there could be as many as 5,000 unprotected nursing home beds.  This represents about 5 percent of Florida’s nursing home beds.

All hazardous areas, such as boiler rooms, paint shops, soiled linen rooms and trash collection rooms, would be required to be protected by an automated fire sprinkler system by December 31, 2007.  All remaining areas of each existing nursing home would have to be protected by an automated fire sprinkler system by December 31, 2009.

Senate Bill 2572 has been heard in the Senate Health Care Committee.  House Bill 1267 is expected to be withdrawn from the Health Care Appropriations Committee and is anticipated to be heard in the next Health and Families Council meeting.

 


CFO GALLAGHER OFFERS PARENTS CREATIVE TOOL FOR ENCOURAGING CHILDREN TO SAVE

Early financial education is the key to teaching young people about how money works and how to use it wisely.  As part of National Teach Children to Save Day, CFO Tom Gallagher is encouraging parents to talk with their children about the importance of saving and offered free piggy bank wrappers to help children develop healthy savings habits. 

“Children catch on quickly to the idea of saving. They save everything from stickers to coupons at the grocery store to giveaways at restaurants.  Our hope is that these catchy wrappers will encourage children to start saving their pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters too,” said Gallagher, who oversees the Department of Financial Services.  “Good habits start early and healthy money skills last a lifetime.”

With the wrappers, parents can make a bank out of an empty 2-liter soda bottle.  The wrappers can be downloaded from the department’s website at www.MyFloridaCFO.com Parents are encouraged to ask their child to write his or her name on the wrapper, a savings goal and the amount that must be saved to attain that goal.  


Gallagher said he also hopes that educators will use the free wrappers as a tool to teach their students about saving and planning.

Last fall, Gallagher launched a comprehensive public education campaign – Your Money, Your Life – to promote financial literacy among Floridians of all ages and economic levels.   Some suggestions for teaching kids about the value of money include:
  • Teach your child the importance of saving.  To make their savings visible and real, build savings in a piggy bank or open up their own savings account.   If your financial institution doesn’t offer special children’s accounts with no fees and no minimum balances, ask if arrangements can be made.

  • Make saving fun.  Some banks have kids clubs where members get newsletters or receive balloons when they make deposits.  If your financial institution doesn’t offer this, use another positive reward.

  • Kids love to get mail, so keep an eye out for their monthly statement.  This will help them see the gradual effect of interest on their balance.

For more information, log on to www.yourmoneyyourlife.org.


FCAT WRITING IMPROVES

Education Commissioner John Winn and Governor Bush announced this year's results of the writing portion of the 2005 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) for students in grades 4, 8, and 10.

More students have scored higher than in previous years, despite the challenges created by the 2004 hurricanes. Florida students continue to improve on the FCAT writing portion of the test.

"I applaud Florida's teachers for not only embracing higher standards this year in the face of daunting circumstances, but also preparing students to achieve beyond expectations," stated Gov. Bush.

Congratulations to Florida students for improving writing skills so vital to success in school and life.
 



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