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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS INSURANCE COMMISSIONER : Press Calls for Campaign Against Fraud

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State insurance commissioner candidate Bill Press, under fire for taking contributions from attorneys who advertise to represent accident claimants against insurance companies, proposed Wednesday a sweeping anti-fraud campaign by the state Insurance Department against “corrupt attorneys and doctors.”

Calling Los Angeles “the automobile accident insurance fraud capital of the United States,” Press, a Democrat, estimated that the auto insurers statewide are losing $1.5 billion a year to fraud, including staged accidents and false medical bills and legal claims. This is more than 10% of annual auto insurance premiums.

He called for increasing the number of fraud investigators in the Insurance Department from the current 25 to 200, enacting legislation to take away licenses to practice law or medicine from any lawyer or doctor convicted of insurance fraud, and requiring insurers to fight harder against fraud. The costs of the crackdown under Press’ plan would be paid by assessments against the companies.

Reaction from other candidates in the race varied, some saying that they had been advocating similar crackdowns all along and that Press is trying to have it both ways, financing his campaign from sources suspected of abetting fraud and then urging a crackdown against it. One other candidate was noncomittal and one opposed Press’ anti-fraud approach.

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State Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), called Press’ proposal “nearly identical to proposals that I have made repeatedly over the last three months.

“I’m pleased to see his interest in this matter,” he said. “But I’m curious about his commitment to rooting out fraud, considering that he is apparently taking money from insurance mills, or relying heavily on insurance mills for financing his campaign.”

Insurance mills is a pejorative name for teams of lawyers, doctors and chiropractors who are accused of encouraging clients to build up claims against insurers, so as to win large settlements for the clients, out of which they take a large percentage in fees.

“My first reaction is, he stole the entire idea from me,” said Democrat Ray Bourhis of Press’ proposals. “My second is, he’s hypocritical as hell, to be taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from automobile accident mills to fund 10-second TV spots one day, and to say he’s going after fraud the next.”

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Press, however, said those who question his independence don’t know him.

“I’m unbought and unbossed,” he said. “I’m the Democrat who took on Jerry Brown and Tom Bradley. As a Catholic, I took on the Pope for opposing birth control. I opposed KABC (the station he worked for as a television commentator) for hiring Morton Downey.”

Meanwhile, Tom Skornia, a Republican candidate, also said he had been suggesting anti-fraud ideas similar to Press’ “for some months now.”

Two other candidates were noncommittal or dubious about the anti-fraud approaches of Press, Garamendi, Bourhis and Skornia. Democrat Walter Zelman said he wanted to study them and Democrat Conway Collis suggested: “The better way to go after it is to roll back rates under Proposition 103. When you force the companies to reduce rates, they’ll go after fraud on their own.”

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