TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Gov. Rick Scott on Monday ordered his auditor general to investigate whether officials at Citizens Property Insurance Corp. retaliated against whistle blowers within the state-backed insurer when they shut down the internal investigation unit last month.
In a letter to Florida Auditor General Melinda Miguel, Scott said a report submitted to Citizens Audit Committee on Friday “raises new concerns” over the decision in October to disband the Office of Corporate Integrity, fire its employees, and restructure the insurer’s internal affairs functions.
At the time of their dismissal, employees within the office were conducting a series of investigations into disciplinary mismanagement, improper conduct and use of funds by supervisors at Citizens, the state’s largest property insurer with more than 1.4 million policyholders.
Among the incidents included were those of an employee who was fired for practicing law without a license and another who took off her bra after drinking too much during a Citizens retreat in Tampa, according to the Miami Herald in a report late last week.
“Accountability and transparency require an adequate number of independent, highly trained professionals,” Scott said in a letter to Miguel. “My administration will not tolerate any action taken to undermine these safeguards. Your report will allow me to assess whether the taxpayer resources that support Citizens are properly protected and whether corrective action is needed to enhance compliance at Citizens.”
It’s the second time in as many months that Scott has entered into the fray following a decision by Citizens to disband the corporate integrity office, which was staffed by a former FDLE investigator and others who conducted internal investigations relating to sexual harassment, financial mismanagement and other subjects.
Citizens officials have said the agency needed employees with more forensic auditing experience and that the reorganization would put the company in line with other private sector corporations in terms of internal safeguards.
Citizens officials have staunchly denied that the reorganization was retaliatory.
“Citizens is committed to ensuring the highest level of ethics and welcomes a full investigation by the Inspector General into the changes made in the office of corporate integrity,” Citizens President Barry Gilway said in a statement Monday. “I am deeply distressed that recent news reports regarding the restructuring of the Office of the Internal Auditor have eroded the public trust.”
Critics of the move say they are concerned that the staff was fired for doing its job too well and ruffling the feathers of upper management within the corporation.
Among Scott’s earlier concerns was that the office was closed before replacements were hired to replace them. He also urged Gilway, who took over in July, to “use greater caution” in the future when dealing with internal affairs.
“While I understand your desire to reduce redundancy and create efficiencies within Citizens, such efficiencies cannot be achieved at the expense of accountability, transparency, and compliance,” Scott wrote.
Monday’s letter brought immediate applause from groups that have questioned last month’s shuttering of the Citizens’ unit.
“Citizens President Barry Gilway did the right thing in formally requesting this review,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida. “We look forward to the inspector general’s report to ensure accountability for the actions that resulted in firings of four internal government watchdogs.”
Citizens has been in the spotlight for the past several weeks as it tries to reduce the number of policyholders. Last month, Scott raised concern with Gilway over the firings and a $350 million proposal to provide low interest loans to companies willing to take over policies from state-backed insurer.
“The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.”