POSTED ON DECEMBER 12, 2012:
Boys and Their Toys
Insurance commissioner plays cops and robbers
The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys. American truism
It's a safe bet that whoever first uttered those words never met Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak. But he (or more likely, she) almost certainly recognized Doak's type.
You may not know much about Doak, the former Tulsa insurance executive and agent who was elected statewide in 2010. The fact is, insurance commissioners rarely make headlines unless they end up in jail -- which happened not so long ago in Oklahoma.
But as a concerned, informed citizen, you may wish to pay closer attention to the elected official charged with protecting you from the insurance industry's worst excesses and lamest excuses not to pay your claim.
Doak, you see, is engaging in some fanciful behavior that even has his fellow Republicans scratching their heads, reaching for antacids, and -- most importantly -- threatening to shorten his leash.
Under the guise of protecting his fraud unit investigators, Doak is transforming the traditionally white-collar insurance department into a paramilitary-style organization, replete with some of the most expensive law enforcement toys imaginable.
His office has spent $180,000 on high-tech law enforcement equipment, including seven police-package vehicles, bulletproof vests, and fancily equipped shotguns.
"Protecting Oklahomans is my top priority," declared Doak. "I will do whatever I can to keep them and my investigators safe. The best part about the Anti-Fraud Unit is that it's funded by fines, penalties, and multi-state settlements, not taxpayer dollars."
Who knew that investigating insurance fraud in Oklahoma these days was as risky as Elliot Ness pursuing Al Capone into a smoke-filled back room?
"I don't think Oklahomans as a whole are going to relish the day when their neighborhood is full of official police-package insurance department cars as they're executing an arrest on a guy who did a fraudulent insurance claim," Okla. Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, told the AP.
"For the life of me, I never could come to grasp with why the Insurance Department couldn't take a local sheriff's deputy, or someone responsible to the local community, with them when they do these arrests."
Doak defends his SWAT-buildup by noting that two Louisiana fraud investigators were shot and killed when attempting to collect records from a suspended insurance agent who later turned the gun on himself.
He even released a statement from Louisiana's insurance commissioner, James Donelon, who evidently plans to ask lawmakers there for similar protection that Doak has secured here.
"I certainly support any actions that other states' insurance departments take, including those taken by Commissioner Doak in Oklahoma, to increase the level of personal safety for their fraud investigators," Donelon said.
"I hope that no other lives will be lost in this vital activity of states' insurance departments, due to a lack of personal safety for the investigators."
Murphey is no squishy, soft-on-crime liberal. But he is a crusader for government efficiency -- in other words, squeezing every last drop out of the taxpayers' dime. And his approach -- call in the uniformed, front-line professionals if a situation appears to be dangerous -- is pure Oklahoma sense.
Doak's purchases invite serious skepticism, though, because he's proven himself to be an inveterate publicity hound. One of his latest photo-ops involved spending part of Thanksgiving Day riding with a state trooper, ostensibly so he could see first-hand how they handle insurance-less drivers.
It would seem there's not much more to know about that subject. You are required by state law to carry liability insurance. If you're stopped and you don't have it, the big truck with the winch comes to impound your vehicle. And you have some serious 'splaining to do to the person with the badge.
Doak's publicity stunt is no doubt smart politics. As a mostly obscure, down-ballot statewide officeholder, Doak looks for any means possible to attract positive publicity. He's up for reelection in two years, after all.
But when you combine the cruisin' in a patrol car with spending $180K on law enforcement bells-and-whistles, you can't help but wonder whether it's all about publicity or whether Doak harbors some dream of becoming an Untouchable, tugging down the brim of his Ness-style fedora.
Okla. Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, isn't alone in shaking his head in wonder. But he's taking steps to end the nonsense, drafting legislation that would thwart the agency from spending money on unnecessary gizmos.
Indeed, Coates said he fears the insurance department -- whose revenue is driven by fees and fines -- could be adopting a "police posture" to generate revenue through intimidation.
"I'm confident Oklahoma taxpayers will not be pleased to find they've bought $180,000 of SWAT-style equipment for an agency that doesn't need it," Coates said. "It could lead people to the conclusion the insurance commissioner is simply using every available public resource he can access to broaden his visibility for political purposes."
Think this is all much ado about nothing? Just one publicity-seeking pol squabbling with another? There's more to Doak's record that you should know.
In 2011, Doak told the Tulsa Association of Health Underwriters at the Tulsa Country Club that he believes his job is to "protect their jobs."
Really? It's not first and foremost to protect Oklahoma consumers from predatory practices? If you doubt the influence of campaign contributions on election officials, you might want to look at Doak's donor lists on file at the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
Then, of course, there was last spring's public relations debacle when his office announced the criteria for the annual Insurance Commissioner's Award -- which, according to the news release, would be presented to the "girl with the biggest tits."
State agency? Or Animal House?
The aide responsible for the fraternity-style hijinks was forced to resign, but it only reinforced the perception that Doak is just another millionaire who financed his own campaign and now carries out a pattern of disrespectful and sexist behavior towards the female citizens of Oklahoma.
And now -- at a time when the state budget is tighter than ever -- Doak is spending money on SWAT-type gear?
He may fancy himself as an Untouchable, but his poor judgment evokes another lawman portrayed on television: Barney Fife.
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