California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara apologized Tuesday for taking campaign contributions from — and scheduling meetings with — insurance industry-connected donors, and said he would halt all political fundraising until the end of the year while he works to put a stop to it.
Lara made the apology and announcement in a letter Tuesday to leaders of three consumer advocacy groups. The letter comes after the San Diego Union-Tribune published numerous investigative reports detailing Lara’s campaign contributions from insurers after he promised not to accept such industry-connected donations. Lara’s campaign for reelection in 2020 has refunded $83,000 in such contributions since the Union-Tribune began its inquiry.
Lara has also been criticized for decisions that appeared to benefit some of the industry-connected donors that contributed to his political campaign.
Lara wrote the letter Tuesday to Amy Bach, executive director for United Policy Holders; Guillermo Mayer, president and CEO for Public Advocates; and Anthony E. Wright, executive director for Health Access. He said he would suspend fundraising until at least the end of the year while his campaign works to make changes, including better systems to screen out contributions from donors tied to the industry that Lara regulates.
“Even though no laws or rules were broken — and these interactions did not affect or influence my official actions in any way — I must hold myself to a higher standard,” Lara wrote in the letter. “I can and will do better. These failures are not consistent with my personal values nor my long career in public service.”
Lara said in the letter that he takes full responsibility for the failures and was “deeply sorry” for them.
Lara also wrote in the letter that he would terminate his longtime contract with the fundraising personnel responsible for scheduling meetings and soliciting campaign contributions from donors in the insurance industry during Lara’s first six months in office. His letter did not include the names of the fundraising personnel or identify the industry-connected people with whom he met or from whom his campaign solicited contributions.
Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for Lara’s campaign, told the Union-Tribune by email Tuesday that the fundraising personnel with whom Lara’s campaign terminated its contract was Dan Weitzman.
Between Feb. 28 and June 25, Lara’s campaign disbursed $22,243 to Daniel C. Weitzman Consulting, according to campaign finance disclosures. Of the total, $20,856 was for “fundraising events.”
Weitzman also serves as controller for the California Democratic Party, according to the party’s website. Weitzman did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Lara’s letter goes on to lay out reforms his campaign will adopt, “effective immediately.”
The reforms include implementing rigorous vetting protocols and retaining experts to develop new processes for screening and reporting all outside political activity, requesting department attorneys develop new publicly available protocols for scheduling and conducting meetings with department-regulated entities and ordering regular public release of Lara’s official calendar of meetings with external stakeholders.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Lara’s office had not provided records of his meetings in response to a July 17 request by the Union-Tribune.
Among the campaign donations Lara returned amid scrutiny by the Union-Tribune were contributions from insurance executives and others tied to Applied Underwriters, a Nebraska workers’ compensation firm that is facing dozens of complaints from California employers who bought troubled policies.
Lara’s office intervened in several cases against Applied Underwriters to benefit the insurer before he announced he would recuse himself from further decisions related to the donors, including a pending sale of Applied Underwriters that requires Department of Insurance approval, the Union-Tribune reported.
Two of the three recipients of Lara’s letter Tuesday did not immediately respond to the Union-Tribune’s request for comment. A spokeswoman for Public Advocates said the group’s CEO was unavailable for comment because he was traveling.