(Editor’s note: a high-resolution PDF version of this story can be found in CRI’s Special Reports section.)
A nine-month investigation by the Caesar Rodney Institute has uncovered lucrative no-show jobs and no-bid contracts for campaign donors, allegations of fraud and a systemic misuse of millions of taxpayer dollars.
By Lee Williams
Attorney Steve Kinion receives $16,000 taxpayer dollars per month to serve as director of the Delaware Department of Insurance’s Captive Insurance Bureau, even though he works and lives in Springfield, Illinois, where he maintains a thriving law practice.
A staffer in Delaware’s Captive Insurance Bureau – who asked not to be identified – at first said Kinion “commutes” to Delaware from Illinois.
The same staffer later admitted Kinion hasn’t been in the office for months.
Kinion’s two colleagues, who receive $16,000 and $10,000 dollars per month in similar contracts, have backgrounds that raise questions and concerns about the overall stewardship of the Captive Bureau.
All three well-compensated officials were handpicked to run the newly-created bureau by Delaware Insurance Commissioner Karen Weldin Stewart. Kinion donated thousands of dollars to Stewart’s 2008 election campaign.
The Department of Insurance (DOI) Stewart heads is entirely self-funded because of the fees and taxes it receives from insurance companies doing business in the state. What the DOI doesn’t spend on operating costs, it is required to contribute into the state’s General Fund.
A nine-month investigation by the Caesar Rodney Institute has found that Delaware taxpayers may not be getting their fair share of the millions of dollars the DOI rakes in annually – at a time when state employees’ salaries are being cut and services scaled back because of the worst economic crisis in recent memory.
Based on numerous interviews, court records and nearly a dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, including one for all of Stewart’s e-mail correspondence, and another for Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) data for her state-owned Dodge Avenger, CRI found an agency fraught with problems, some of which include: questionable hiring practices, questionable contracts for campaign donors, failure to comply with state law and most troublesome, millions of taxpayer dollars paid to out-of-state consultants.
Meanwhile, hardworking DOI staffers – longtime state employees who’ve seen insurance commissioners come and go – say they are keeping their heads down, waiting for the shoe to drop. They say something ultimately must change, and the department’s out-of-control spending must end. They just don’t want to get involved or caught up in the inevitable fallout.
Nowhere, they say, are the problems within the DOI better exemplified than at the Captive Insurance Bureau which Stewart created.
A ‘revenue generating’ bureau
The commissioner unveiled the “Captive-Financial Revenue Generating Division” on July 30, 2009.
Right from the start, the intent behind the Captive Bureau was to make money.
“The mission of the bureau will be to accelerate the formation of all types of new captive insurance companies in Delaware, while developing, implementing and growing several other potential revenue streams,” Stewart is quoted as saying in a press release announcing the new unit.
According to her written statement, captive insurance companies are “owned by the entities that they insure, are usually formed by businesses that wish to better manage the cost and administration of their insurance coverage, and are established with the specific objective of financing risks emanating from their parent group or groups.”
Captive insurance, or reinsurance, is provided by a company that is formed primarily to cover the assets and risks of its parent company or companies.
Basically, captives can be thought of as in-house insurance.
Companies turn to captives to reduce costs, enhance risk management, gain greater control over their insurance, and to directly access the reinsurance market.
Several offshore jurisdictions, such as the Cayman Islands, Anguilla, Barbados or the British Virgin Islands, have lower capitalization requirements that allow captives to be established with less initial investment and lower reserves.
Delaware has to compete nationally for its share of the lucrative captive market.
Like a more-traditional insurance company, a captive pays taxes and fees to the DOI in order to operate in Delaware.
Commissioner Stewart chose three outsiders to run the Captive Bureau. Bill White, who had been contracted for $15,000 per month to administer the DOI’s captive efforts, when it was a program rather than a bureau, did not renew his contract with the department.
According to Stewart’s press release, Steve Kinion was appointed as Director of the bureau. Kinion had been serving as “senior advisor” to Stewart and as a member of her transition team. There was no mention of his Illinois residency or law firm. He is not admitted to the bar in Delaware.
Stewart appointed her longtime acquaintance Mary Jo Lopez as the Captive Bureau’s Director of Business Development.
Lopez is the founder of Affinitee Group, LLC, which Stewart described in her written statement as an “insurance management and consulting firm.”
Wilmington attorney Edmond Ianni was chosen by Stewart to serve as the bureau’s Director of Strategic Development.
Stewart included an italicized disclaimer in the July 30 press release about the three appointments: “The positions of director, director of business development, and director of strategic development are independent contractor positions subject to Delaware’s procurement law and open bidding process.”
According to Stewart’s 2008 campaign finance reports, Kinion paid $900 for a breakfast fundraiser on Sept. 23, 2008, and donated $1,200 to Stewart’s election campaign in May of that year.
Kinion’s Illinois-based law firm Zack Stamp, Ltd. names him as the lead attorney employed by the office. His bio on the company’s Web site describes his employment as “1999-present.” His Zack Stamp office phone includes the message “This is Steve Kinion. I am currently away from my desk.” There is no mention about his directorship of Delaware’s Captive Bureau or instruction on how to contact him at the Wilmington office.
The Caesar Rodney Institute obtained a copy of Kinion’s contract with the DOI through a request made pursuant to the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In the contract, he’s identified as “Zack Stamp Consulting,” which is abbreviated as “ZSC.”
“In consideration for work being performed by ZSC, the Department shall pay ZSC a monthly fee, in advance, of $16,000,” the contract states. “ZSC shall be paid the initial monthly fee of $16,000 upon signing this Agreement and the sum of $16,000 per month no later than the 15th day of each month thereafter for the remaining term of this Agreement.” There is no residency requirement in the contract.
Stewart’s Chief of Staff Elliott Jacobson, who many say is actually running the day-to-day operations of the DOI, described how Kinion’s $16,000 per month salary compares to actual state employees.
In an e-mail sent May 4, 2009, Jacobson tells Kinion, “If we subtracted what estimated annual expenses would be, as well as subtracting an estimate of the cost of the benefit package an employee receives from your fee, it would bring us to a figure that favorably compares with the Deputy Commissioner’s salary, plus the benefit package, plus expenses.”
Kinion did not respond to calls, e-mails or personal visits made by CRI to the Captive Bureau seeking comment for this story.
Stewart’s pick for the Captive Bureau’s Director of Strategic Development, Wilmington attorney Edmond M. Ianni, also did not respond to calls, e-mails or personal visits made by CRI to the Captive Bureau seeking comment for this story.
Stewart sent an e-mail May 11, 2009 to Ann Visalli, director of the Office of Management and Budget, seeking OMB’s approval of Ianni’s $16,000-per-month contract. The insurance commissioner described Ianni as a “nationally recognized authority on the ‘Delaware advantages,’” who had already begun working at the department, and who could provide “critical services to me and the Insurance Department.”
“All of this will result in generating revenue for Delaware and retaining and creating jobs here in our First State,” Stewart wrote. “This agreement (which does not include the provision of legal services) is consistent with existing OMB-approved agreements that the Insurance Department currently has with others serving our Department.”
Ianni began billing the DOI before OMB had even approved his contract.
In an e-mail sent to Stewart on June 13, 2009, he attached an invoice for June, and complained that his payment for May was late.
“How can you bill me for June before the month has ended?” Stewart wrote in her reply. “The State still has not approved the contract. Stop dunning me. I have been trying everything to get the Department’s contracts approved.”
Visalli did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Mary Jo Lopez began working as the Captive Bureau’s Director of Business Development in February 2009, after Stewart signed off on the contract with her newly-created New Jersey-based corporation, Affinitee Group, LLC.
According to the contract, which was obtained by the Caesar Rodney Institute through a FOIA request, Affinitee Group, LLC was chosen to provide “business development and marketing services for State of Delaware, Department of Insurance, Captive Insurance Program.”
In her July 2009 press release that announced the formation of the Captive Bureau, Stewart said Lopez was the “founder” of Affinitee, which she described as “an insurance management consulting firm.”
Affinitee, however, has no working Web site, no client list, a minimal Internet presence and appears to consist of just Lopez.
According to the New Jersey Secretary of State’s Office, Lopez created Affinitee Group, LLC in November 2007. Lopez is the only officer, director or board member listed on the business entity status report.
Affinitee’s phone number is answered by a machine, in which a recorded voice states: “This is Mary Jo Lopez.” There is no mention of Affinitee Group, LLC in the recording.
According to the contract, Lopez/Affinitee can work from home or the Delaware office, and the state will pay her travel costs, which amounted to nearly $5,000 for just three months of 2009.
Despite her title of Director of Business Development and hefty $120,000 annual salary, e-mail correspondence obtained through FOIA indicates that Lopez acts more like Stewart’s personal assistant, arranging meetings, planning travel needs and sending thank-you notes.
An unannounced visit
Rather than housing the Captive Bureau in DOI’s offices in Dover or Wilmington, the bureau is housed in a $4,000-per-month suite on the sixth floor of the One Custom’s House building, located on King Street in Wilmington, across the hall from KISS 101.7 FM.
There are no other DOI offices in the building.
Insurance department insiders say the bureau was moved to an offsite to cut down on scrutiny.
The Caesar Rodney Institute visited the bureau last month.
The Captive Bureau is not marked or identified as a state office. It’s only identified by a “602” on the door, in self-adhesive mailbox numbers.
Neither Kinion nor Ianni or Lopez were present.
None of their offices were labeled. There were no names on desks or doors. Their offices had no pictures, photos or bric-a-brac on the walls or desks. One office had cardboard boxes piled where a visitor would sit. It appeared as though they weren’t being used.
The entire suite has a temporary, just-moved-in feel.
When asked whether Kinion was in the suite, a staffer who asked not to be identified said he may arrive later in the week.
“He commutes,” she said. “He doesn’t get reimbursed for travel.”
Lopez, she said, was absent because the electricity was out at her New Jersey home.
She did not know Ianni’s whereabouts.
“They haven’t been here for March or February because of the snow,” she said. “March and February were pretty bad.”
Kinion, Ianni and Lopez received a combined total of $84,000 taxpayer dollars for March and February.
Where’s the money going?
Of all the state insurance departments in the country, the Delaware Department of Insurance, at $25 million, has the 14th largest budget, according to the most recent data available from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NIAC).
Delaware DOI’s budget is greater even than Pennsylvania’s, whose insurance office operates on $23.5 million, even though they bring in nearly eight-times more revenue than Delaware, and have nearly four-times as many employees: 303 compared to the 81 employees working for Stewart.
Delaware’s insurance department is also the least efficient office in the region. Employee efficiency ratios show that Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia all produce more revenue for their states, per employee. In addition, Delaware spends more money to collect its revenue dollars when compared to the surrounding states.
A history of not commenting
None of the current or former DOI staffers interviewed by the Caesar Rodney Institute for this special report were willing to allow their names to be used in this story.
Many former DOI employees are still involved with the insurance industry, and are concerned their current employers would suffer if they spoke on-the-record. They said their firms could be banned from the state’s lucrative insurance market.
Current DOI staffers say they’d be fired for speaking publically about the department’s failings.
Commissioner Stewart was not willing to be interviewed for this special report.
Instead of the standard, face-to-face interview sought by the Caesar Rodney Institute, Stewart and her Chief of Staff Jacobson insisted they would only respond to questions submitted in writing.
“I need a list of questions, so that I can have the information available to answer any question(s). We do that with every reported (sic) and/or individual,” Stewart wrote in an e-mail.
“It is the policy and practice of the Commissioner of Insurance and the Department of Insurance to respond to all proper and legitimate inquiries from news organizations and other parties concerning matters affecting the Department and Delaware’s citizens,” Jacobson wrote in an e-mail sent March 12.
The Caesar Rodney Institute explained that it resists submitting written questions because often they are answered by a team of lawyers and spokespersons, rather than the elected official. Also, requiring written questions prohibits follow-up questions.
The Caesar Rodney Institute told Jacobson its reporting had uncovered issues Stewart would undoubtedly want to address.
“What are those issues?” Jacobson wrote. “Perhaps we can negotiate an arrangement. The Commissioner will be away until next Wednesday so I propose in the meantime we try to come to some kind of an agreement.”
Jacobson never explained what the “arrangement” entailed.
Stewart’s e-mails indicate it is highly unlikely the commissioner would ever personally answer any written questions submitted by the Caesar Rodney Institute or anyone else.
Instead, Stewart relies on a team for guidance on dealing with the media, and for damage control, which includes Jacobson, various DOI staffers and Wilmington blogger Nancy Willing.
One e-mail Jacobson sent to Stewart in March 2009, indicates he and the DOI’s chief insurance examiner spent two days “putting together talking points” for the commissioner, prior to a phone call from a newspaper reporter seeking quotes for a daily story.
In an e-mail Willing sent to Stewart and Jacobson in March 2009, the blogger points out a story discussed on WDEL’s Rick Jensen Show was picked up by local blogs.
“Karen, if you or Elliott have a public statement, you might give it to me. Not answering the phone for the WNJ reporter wasn’t so great,” Willing wrote. “Would you like to provide commentary for the public consumption, or do you want the public to assume that what the radio and press are saying to be the last word.”
Two days later, in an e-mail titled “This is a disaster and it doesn’t have to be,” Willing expressed her disappointment with the response Jacobson had posted on the local blog.
“This was poorly played and will haunt you,” Willing wrote.
Use of outside experts
On July 17, 2008 the New York-based law firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, LLP donated $1,000 to Stewart’s election campaign.
On Sept. 15, 2008, two partners from the law firm each donated $1,200 to Stewart’s campaign.
Two weeks later, the firm gave her an additional $1,200.
A month later, another Stroock employee made a $250 campaign donation.
Why would a New York-based law firm donate to a relatively unknown candidate running for insurance commissioner in Delaware?
According to the Delaware State checkbook, an online listing of payments made by the DOI and every other state agency, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, LLP became one of a large and growing list of out-of-state law firms and consultants who began receiving millions of Delaware taxpayer dollars after Stewart was elected – money that could have gone into the state’s General Fund.
In June 2009, Stroock received five checks from the DOI, totaling more than $45,000, for “consulting.” By the end of the year, they’d been paid an additional $20,000.
The Caesar Rodney Institute obtained a copy of Stroock’s contract with the DOI, which is valid for three years.
According to the contract, the New York-based firm agrees to “serve as Expert Legal Consultant and perform such consultancy duties as assigned by the state.”
Two of the firm’s attorneys were chosen for the project. One bills the DOI at $712 per hour, and the other receives $399 per hour, but these totals pale when compared to the taxpayer dollars paid to other firms.
Regulatory Insurance Services and it’s sister firm INS Consultants Inc. receive millions of dollars from the DOI.
According to its Web site, four of Regulatory Insurance Services’ five “principals” have previously worked at the DOI, including John Tinsley, who Stewart named as “Special Deputy for Examinations” of the Captive Bureau.
Regulatory Insurance Services conducts financial examinations for the DOI. It’s not known what type of consulting services its sister firm provides to the department. The two firms use the same address.
From the start of FY-09 through the first two quarters of FY-10, Regulatory Insurance Services received $19 million – an average of more than $1 million per month.
INS Consultants Inc. was paid more than $1.2 million over the same time period.
Apparently someone within the DOI noticed the large amount of money being funneled regularly to these two firms.
An e-mail sent between DOI staffers in March 2009, which was copied to the commissioner and Jacobson, titled “INS Aging reports as of 3/20/09” asks: “Why are the 90 day and over receivables so high, over $72,000?”
It is not known what actions were taken. No response to the e-mail was provided to the Caesar Rodney Institute as part of its FOIA request.
Alan Shaw, president of Regulatory Insurance Services, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
In addition to consultants and accountants, the DOI pays million of dollars to outside law firms. Like Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, many are located out of state.
The DOI itself is having difficulty tracking all the contracts it has given to these out-of-state lawyers. Stewart’s e-mails contain dozens of references to problems locating these contracts within the agency.
Violating state law
Title 29, Chapter 100 of the Delaware Code spells out the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
“It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that our citizens shall have the opportunity to observe the performance of public officials and to monitor the decisions that are made by such officials in formulating and executing public policy; and further, it is vital that citizens have easy access to public records in order that the society remain free and democratic,” the Act states.
The FOIA law codifies what type of documents are public records – obtainable under the act – and what type of records are not public, and therefore not subject to FOIA.
These exceptions to FOIA include: trade secrets, labor negotiations or collective bargaining, personnel files, medical files, criminal files or intelligence files compiled for law-enforcement purposes.
The list of exceptions does not include personal communications, if made on the state’s e-mail system, messages that may be embarrassing to an elected official, or documents the official simply doesn’t want someone to have.
The Delaware Department of Insurance is violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
On July 14, 2009 the Caesar Rodney Institute submitted a FOIA request to Stewart for “copies of all e-mails sent or received from your state electronic mail account.”
Jacobson immediately wanted to know why CRI wanted the e-mails, and who was talking.
“May I ask, in the interest of FOIA, what inspired these requests?” he stated in an e-mail.
Jacobson was told that state law does not require the public to provide the inspiration behind a FOIA request.
“You are quite right,” Jacobson said in his reply. “The law does not ‘require’ you to provide the ‘inspiration’ behind a FOIA request. However, it also does not ‘prohibit’ you from providing the ‘inspiration.’ More to the point, this request comes out of the blue for God knows what reason. Therefore in the interest of transparency, elementary fairness and ethical journalism it would not prejudice your ‘sources’ to voluntarily answer the questions ‘Why?’ and ‘Why Now?’”
Jacobson was told that the Caesar Rodney Institute never reveals confidential sources, and that when elected officials seek to identify these sources, it produces a chilling effect on the First Amendment.
“I did not mean to suggest I was inquiring about your sources,” Jacobson replied. “I tried to make the point of mentioning that I did not want to ‘prejudice (i.e. not revealing) your sources.’ I made this inquiry on my own. The Commissioner most certainly did not order me to investigate your actions.”
The DOI started to process the request.
The Caesar Rodney Institute paid the Delaware Department of Technology and Information to retrieve the commissioner’s e-mails from the state’s computer system.
In November, Elayne Starkey, DTI’s chief security officer, said the email archive search resulted in 3,641 emails.
Starkey then gave all 3,641 e-mails to Stewart and Jacobson, along with their in-house counsel, Deputy Attorney General Julie “Jo” Donoghue, so they could review them before turning them over to the Caesar Rodney Institute.
During one phone conversation, Jacobson said he’d be withholding all of the “personal” e-mails sent or received by his boss.
During the review process, Deputy Attorney General Donoghue abruptly quit the DOI. Her reasons for leaving are not known. She was not willing to be interviewed for this story.
The Caesar Rodney Institute was forced to retain an attorney who threatened to sue the DOI unless they responded to the institute’s FOIA request.
After receiving the attorney’s letter, Jacobson began turning over the e-mails, in batches, one or two CDs at a time.
Even though DTI located more than 3,600 e-mails, the Caesar Rodney Institute has only received 1,500, and of the ones furnished, many are heavily redacted with a black marker.
CRI has posted some of Commissioner Stewart’s e-mails on its Web site. The e-mails can be accessed here.
A car of her own
Commissioner Stewart did not own a car when she was elected. After taking office, she used a state-owned vehicle as if it was her own – during the workweek, on weekends and on holidays.
The Caesar Rodney Institute submitted a FOIA request for the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) data for her Dodge Avenger.
The data, which can be seen here, shows that Stewart took the car to and from work, on shopping trips, to hair salons, restaurants and night clubs, at all hours – often at excessive rates of speed.
This personal use of a state vehicle came after the February 2009 order from Markell, which required a “zero-based approach with respect to the use of the state fleet vehicles and take-home privileges. In other words, the use of all fleet vehicles will need to be justified. Previous use will not be viewed as sufficient justification to keep a car.”
According to several DOI staffers, during the 15 months she’s been commissioner, Stewart has traveled out of state twice as much as any previous commissioners did during their entire four-year term.
Often accompanied by a retinue of staff, the commissioner has visited San Diego, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Scottsdale, Arizona and other cities, along with frequent trips to New York City and Washington, D.C.
Last week, Stewart took a dozen DOI staffers with her to Denver, including the newly-hired Deputy Attorney General who replaced Donoghue.
Several of the trips have been to lawyers’ offices for “Meet and Greets,” where the commissioner and her staff have presented what they call the “Captive Road Show.”
The department’s frequent flying has been noticed by other state agencies.
Lt. Gov. Matt Denn served as Insurance Commissioner before he ran for the state’s second-highest elected office. Stewart succeeded him as commissioner.
Denn and Stewart have sparred, via e-mail, over files she claims are missing from the department.
“Thank you for your March 10, 2009 letter,” Denn wrote in an e-mail reply. “I tried to contact you earlier but was told that you were staying in San Diego with your senior staff.”
In February 2009, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell slashed $28.7 million from the FY-09 budget shortfall partially by trying to reduce out of state travel by state employees.
Markell instructed the Office of Management and Budget to cut costs by curbing trips they considered non-essential.
His order produced a harsh memo to the DOI from OMB director Visalli, which was not provided to CRI as part of its FOIA request.
Some of the DOI staff questioned whether they should follow OMB’s directive, or whether they should continue to travel to out of town meetings as directed by Stewart and Jacobson.
Jacobson, in an e-mail, told one of these worried staffers that Stewart had spoken to Visalli, who gave the DOI “quite a bit of leeway” to attend the meetings.
As to how often the DOI staffers were traveling out of town, Jacobson wrote “every employee that travels to these meetings sacrifices a month of weekends a year. They deserve our gratitude.”
Caesar Rodney Institute research fellows Sara Clark and Danny Russell contributed to this report.
Contact investigative reporter Lee Williams at (302) 242-9272 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Caesar Rodney Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-partisan research and educational organization and is committed to being a catalyst for improved performance, accountability, and efficiency in Delaware government.
© Copyright March 30, 2010 by the Caesar Rodney Institute