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Rick Scott, Cabinet make no decision on next Insurance Commissioner

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

With no clear winner between finalists Jeffrey Bragg and Bill Hager, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on Tuesday decided to keep taking applications for state Insurance Commissioner.

Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam agreed to extend the deadline to April 15; the next Cabinet meeting is April 26.

Scott and Atwater, however, first must agree on one candidate under state law. The Office of Insurance Regulation is in the Department of Financial Services, which Atwater heads as CFO.

The four did agree on another hire, unanimously picking current Department of Business and Professional Regulation deputy secretary Leon Biegalski to become the new executive director of the Department of Revenue. 

Biegalski, a lawyer, now will replace current DOR head Marshall Stranburg, who accepted a position as deputy executive director of the Multistate Tax Commission, an intergovernmental agency that works on uniformity in taxes among states. Stranburg’s last day is April 1.

For the state’s top insurance regulation job, however, it was evident neither candidate had a winning number of votes on the panel.

Bragg, the governor’s favorite, had one significant stumble when Bondi asked him an Affordable Care Act question about navigators, or application counselors, who are supposed to help people get health insurance. Bragg had to admit he didn’t know what Bondi was talking about. 

The now-retired Bragg has served in senior positions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and mega-insurer Zurich. He also was director of the Federal Terrorism Risk Insurance Program.

Bragg was asked to explain news reports about old allegations that he misled investors in a flood insurance business venture which he was involved.

The Palm Beach Post reported Monday that Bragg allegedly signed misleading documents that cost tens of millions of dollars to investors. The case was settled in 2003.

“It’s not good but it’s part of what we face as businessmen and leaders,” Bragg told the panel. He explained that a subsidiary in the business, which issued stock in an initial public offering (IPO) didn’t make the revenue it was expected to, and the stock price later fell.

“Any IPO, if their shares drop, get sued,” he said. “I lost money. I wasn’t happy about it. But that’s business.”

Hager, a current Florida state representative who was Iowa’s insurance commissioner, also runs a small business as an expert witness and insurance arbitrator. The Delray Beach Republican is vice chair of the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee.

“I believe I would be ready from day one,” he said. “I have experience leading … I’m unafraid to lead and to take the heat.”

Hager sold himself as a “team player,” someone who’s “reasonable and responsible” and bringing “vigor and decisiveness” to the job. He stressed the importance of bringing in fresh blood to Florida’s insurance market, but not at the cost of giving away the store in lax regulation. 

“We need to be ever vigilant, but also put the sign out that says ‘Florida is open for business,'” Hager said. “I’ll do everything I can do to make sure the market knows we want them here.”

At the same time, he added, “this is not a position to stand by and watch the world go by.”

Chip Merlin, the namesake of Tampa’s Merlin Law Group, didn’t like either choice. The firm, which also includes former state Insurance Consumer Advocate Sean Shaw, has built a business out of representing people “when insurance companies deny, delay or underpay property insurance claims.”

“Policyholders should breathe a short sigh of relief today, and then demand the new search include candidates willing to put consumers – not the insurance industry – first,” Merlin said in a statement.

Biegalski beat out three other contenders: DOR chief economist Robert McKee, retired DOR official James Evers and former Duval County Property Appraiser James Overton. He ran unsuccessfully for Jacksonville mayor last year. 

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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