Hundreds of companies with thousands of employees doing billions of dollars in business with millions of Georgians, all under the thumb of one man.
For 15 years, that’s been Georgia’s insurance industry in a nutshell. The one man is John Oxendine, state insurance commissioner since 1995.
It’s a more powerful post than many citizens realize, and Oxendine has become one of Georgia’s leading vote-getters. If you believe opinion polls, he’s the front-runner to replace Sonny Perdue as governor.
With that leading status comes scrutiny. And much of the scrutiny on Oxendine centers on whether he’s spent his time in office seeking — some would say demanding — the help of the people he regulates to build his political career and fill his campaign coffers.
Serious allegations are raised in reports by the AJC and other outlets. While any one incident may strike the casual political observer as inside baseball, a theme emerges when you view them as a whole.
First, there are the campaign contributions totaling $120,000 which were funneled to him from two Georgia-based insurance companies in 2008, as the AJC reported last May.
Oxendine regulates both companies. After the AJC report, and several months after the donations were made, Oxendine returned the money “out of an abundance of caution.”
Yet Oxendine appointed the head of both firms, Delos “Dee” Yancey III, as chairman of an influential insurance association. Even after the men’s ties were questioned, Oxendine went quail hunting on land that Yancey owned. (You may have heard about it when Oxendine’s son accidentally shot a man.)
Yancey is hardly the only insurance exec to fund Oxendine’s campaigns. The AJC reports that employees and owners of firms regulated by Oxendine gave him at least $2.6 million, or 40 percent of his total election funds, over 10 years.
From here the trail gets a little trickier to follow.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland accused Oxendine of a “shakedown” attempt. The GOP lawmaker referred to a phone call Oxendine made to him in December about a state investigation of Southeastern U.S. Insurance Co. (SEUS), on whose board Westmoreland once served.
Westmoreland said Oxendine pledged to keep his name out of the media as a favor; he felt Oxendine was sending a message. Westmoreland, popular among Georgia conservatives, supports Nathan Deal for governor.
Then came a strange twist: another phone call to Westmoreland, this time by former state legislator Matt Towery.
Towery, who’s also an attorney, visited Oxendine to discuss the SEUS case; at the time, he represented the company’s former CEO, Clark Fain.
Finding Oxendine “obsessed” with Westmoreland’s “shakedown” comment, Towery agreed to call the congressman — while in Oxendine’s office — and ask him to drop the matter. Towery later admitted it “looked wrong” to intervene in a dispute involving a regulator investigating his client.
Given the money involved in the industry, the insurance commissioner must be squeaky clean — even more so than other officials. Oxendine may have remained in bounds all along.
But voters may conclude that they can’t be sure as long as he’s in office — and retains sway over key figures in the stories.
A spokesman this week said Oxendine “is not a quitter and will not leave a job before it is finished.” That’s his call.
As for how voters view things— well, that’s their call.