Consumer eViews

Volume 2, Number 50, December 12, 2005 

Tis the season to be jolly, but it’s also important to keep fire safety in mind as you celebrate.  Candles, tree lights and a fireplace can make for a festive atmosphere, but they can also pose a fire hazard. 

The number of home fires often doubles in December, but by following a few precautions, you and your family can ensure you have a safe and happy holiday. Most importantly, make sure you have working smoke alarms and that your family has practiced a fire escape plan. Here are some additional tips:

  • Make sure you have working smoke detectors.
  • Plug electric space heaters directly into a wall outlet. Do not use them with an extension cord. 
  • Keep space heaters and other heat sources at least 3 feet away from furniture, walls, drapes and bedding.
  • Before using a fireplace, make sure the chimney flue is open so carbon monoxide gas can escape.  
  • Turn out lights and snuff candles before going to bed or leaving the house.

For more seasonal fire safety tips, including a new Home and Holiday Fire Safety CD, are available at

Awareness is critical when it comes to keeping your family and your home safe.

-- Tom Gallagher


Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, announced a series of town hall workshops to give employers and employees an update on the state’s workers’ compensation system and to answer questions about recent rate reductions.  The Division of Workers’ Compensation (DWC) is located within the Department of Financial Services which Gallagher oversees.

The workshops will be held in Ft. Myers on December 13th, in Tampa on December 14th and in Orlando on December 15th.  All of the sessions will take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

“Meaningful reforms, more aggressive investigation of workers’ compensation fraud and compliance efforts have led to dramatic savings for Florida’s businesses,” Gallagher said.  “But we must continue to improve the system for our small businesses and our workers.”

Gallagher spearheaded the passage of Senate Bill 50A in 2003 that reformed the state's workers’ compensation system, including tougher penalties for workers’ compensation fraud and premium evasion.  This year's decrease in workers’ compensation insurance rates will be the third consecutive drop in rates since the bill's passage, for a total savings of nearly $1 billion since 2003. 

To register for the meeting, got to and click on the "WC Town Hall Registration" icon.

The workshops will be held on: 

Tuesday, December 13th in Ft. Myers
Florida Gulf Coast University
Student Union Ballroom
10501 FGCU Boulevard, South 

Wednesday, December 14th in Tampa|
Embassy Suites - USF/Busch Gardens
3705 Spectrum Boulevard 

Thursday, December 15th in Orlando
City of Orlando, City Hall Council Chamber Room, 2nd floor
400 S. Orange Avenue


Fire and arson detectives respond to two meth lab fires in one week

Tom Gallagher, State Fire Marshal, said that his office has responded to nearly 50 fires and explosions at methamphetamine or “meth” labs – including two in the past ten days.  The State Fire Marshal’s Office is hosting a meeting with representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection to forge a stronger partnership for combating this growing menace to Florida communities.

“Almost every day, somewhere in Florida, law enforcement officers and first responders are being called to one of these dangerous labs,” said Gallagher, who is continuing to promote several legislative proposals he announced in June.  “We need to rapidly expand our response to combat this evil drug.”

Gallagher is pushing for laws that would allow the immediate removal of children from a home being used as a meth lab and enhanced penalties for methamphetamine makers, particularly those whose labs injure first responders.

Detectives with the Division of State Fire Marshal’s Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations were called to a meth lab fire last week that severely damaged a Daytona home and a lab fire today in a Destin motel.  Investigations are ongoing and arrests are pending.

Meanwhile, representatives from the DEP’s Division of Law Enforcement have toured the State Fire Marshal’s Bureau of Forensic Fire and Explosives Analysis laboratory.  The purpose of the visit is to review how both departments can work more closely on investigations into meth labs.  While both departments have labs, the state fire and arson lab regularly analyzes evidence from fire and explosion scenes and is capable of identifying solvents and pre-cursor chemicals used in the manufacture of meth. 

“The threat from clandestine meth labs is significant and the need for increased inter-agency cooperation is critical to meet the challenge of better protecting our communities,” Gallagher said. 

The State Fire Marshal’s Office is hosting its fourth meth lab course for first responders.  The intensive three-day program will be held Dec. 13-15 at the Jacksonville offices of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, located at 921 N. Davis Street, Building E.  The training is free for all law enforcement and first responders.  Additional programs are scheduled for Sarasota, Ft. Myers and Deland.

Exact figures on first responder injuries and deaths are hard to collect but according to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), injuries and deaths for first responders dealing with clandestine meth labs are on the rise. Methamphetamine-related events recorded by the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system increased from 184 in 2000 to 320 in June, 2004, totaling 1,791 events in the 16 states, including Florida. These events resulted in almost 960 injuries to police officers, firefighters and other first-responders. The most frequent injuries were respiratory irritation, eye irritation, and burns. Nine deaths were also reported.  

In Florida, there has been a more than 1,000-percent increase in the number of meth labs seized since 2001.

For more information on the department’s “Fight Meth” strategy, visit

he 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.  Anyone with information about this case or any incident of fire is asked to call 1-877-662-7766 (1-877-NOARSON).


Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, announced that department rules outlining stricter requirements for insurance companies to report insurance fraud will soon be in place.  In the wake of multiple hurricanes, Gallagher directed the Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud (DIF) to tighten reporting requirements and enhance penalties for failure to report insurance fraud.

“Insurance fraud forces Florida families to pay more in premiums than necessary,” Gallagher said.  “With explicit rules and stiff fines in place, there will be no excuses for failing to report fraud.”

Florida law requires insurance companies to report insurance fraud but does not provide clear guidance for when and what to report when an insurance claim is considered suspicious.

Under the rules Gallagher is promulgating, insurance companies would be required to:

  • refer fraudulent claims directly and electronically to DIF,
  • detail the process they have in place for identifying and referring suspicious claims,
  • establish minimum standards for training employees in anti-fraud efforts, update their insurance fraud plans every three years, and
  • give DIF authority to order insurers to revise unacceptable fraud plans.

Gallagher is also pushing for legislation in the upcoming legislative session to fine insurance companies up to $50,000 for failing to implement insurance fraud plans and timely report fraud.

The rule will be considered at a public hearing next month.

To date, DIF has opened more than 120 investigations of hurricane-related fraud.  More than 30 suspects have been arrested for insurance fraud following the 2004 hurricanes, and eight have been convicted.  

In the last five years, Florida has led the nation in insurance fraud arrests and convictions, according to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. 

“We need to continue aggressively rooting out fraud that financially impacts Florida’s families,” Gallagher said.

The rule is available on the FLDFS web site at


A contractor is facing grand theft and workers’ compensation fraud charges for using loan money for personal use instead of completing construction on a couple’s Okeechobee County home, and for failing to carry proper workers’ compensation coverage.

Merle Dee Johnston, 69, of Okeechobee, was arrested on the charges following an investigation by detectives with the Florida Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud.  Johnston allegedly admitted to using some $23,000 of the couple’s construction loan money for personal use. 

“This couple was left in a financial lurch and workers were put at risk of being injured,” said Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer who oversees the Department of Financial Services.  “We will continue to aggressively pursue anyone who disregards the law and the safety and welfare of others.”

Johnston initially received some $60,000 from a construction loan the couple had taken out to begin the work.   During the next six months, detectives said, only the foundation, blocks and trusses were installed.  Johnston never returned to complete the work and the structure collapsed. 

The investigation also revealed that Johnston had not paid several outstanding bills. It was also determined that he had underreported his income to Labor Finders and ultimately was working without proper workers’ compensation coverage.  Johnston allegedly billed the couple for approximately $19,000 in labor and supervision cost while reporting only $2,300 worth of labor costs to Labor Finders.  In fact, fraud detectives found that Johnston reported only $2,300 in payroll for the entire year, although he was working other jobs. 

The Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud, investigates fraud in all types of insurance, including health, life, auto, property and workers’ compensation.  To report information about this case or any other possible insurance fraud case, 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.


Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, announced the arrest of a husband and wife who conspired to illegally collect more than $11,000 in unclaimed property.   Investigators with the Department of Financial Services’ Office of Fiscal Integrity said that the couple got caught when the man’s brother, and rightful owner of the unclaimed property, contacted the department to collect the money.

“Stealing money for personal gain is unconscionable and warrants swift and severe action by state prosecutors,” said Gallagher, who oversees the Department of Financial Services.

Stephen Gutstein, 65, was arrested and booked into the Hillsborough County Jail on charges of grand theft, forgery and uttering a forged instrument.  His wife, Lynne Gutstein, 59, was also arrested and charged with grand theft.   If convicted, each felony count carries a sentence up to 5 years in prison plus a $5,000 fine. 

According to state investigators, Stephen and Donald Gutstein are brothers who were entitled to nearly $23,000 in proceeds from their deceased parents’ estate.  Stephen Gutstein immediately collected his half of the money, or $11, 231.15.   Stephen Gutstein, with help from his wife Lynne, created a false document containing his brother’s forged signature on the unclaimed property affidavit to illegally collect his brother’s half of the funds.

The department’s Bureau of Unclaimed Property learned that the money had been fraudulently obtained when Donald Gutstein filed to collect his rightful portion of the proceeds.  Donald Gutstein did not immediately pursue the funds because of health problems.

Floridians should report fraud or abuse involving state funds to the Department of Financial Services by calling 1-800-GET-LEAN (1-800-438-5326).

Consumer Services HelpLine
(800) 342-2762