Sen. Anitere Flores used her powerful position as chairwoman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee to request favors for her mother's Hurricane Irma-damaged property, including getting a Citizens Property Insurance claims adjuster to put her mother's claim ahead of policyholders with greater damage.
Flores denies she asked for special treatment from the insurer she claimed in August had lost the public's trust.
But sources in Tallahassee and Miami, who spoke to Sunshine State News on a condition of anonymity, say the Miami Republican exchanged texts and emails about her mother's insurance with two of Citizens top executives -- Christine Ashburn, chief of communications, legislative and external affairs; and Candace Bunker, manager of legislative and cabinet affairs.
"Plenty of us know Sen. Flores played the power card to take care of her mother," said a lobbyist with a prominent Tallahassee law firm last week. "But don't expect anybody to tell you on the record. This is a woman who has (Senate President) Joe Negron's ear and a high rank on committees we need to win over. This isn't a game we're playing here, this is the business we're in and Sen. Flores could and would bring the wrath of God down on us."
Asburn and Bunker have been unavailable to SSN for interview. The three sources besides the lobbyist who agreed to talk with us include a former lawmaker and a Capitol staffer. All relate surprisingly similar stories:
- Before the Sept. 10 storm, as Irma was bearing down on Florida, Flores contacts Ashburn to discuss setting up a catch-up payment for her mother's lapsed property insurance. (There is no foul there: Citizens procedures allow any policyholder to make payment within 15 days after a policy expires and retain coverage. The policy is automatically reinstated with no loss of coverage. Any damage that occurs between the expiration date of the policy and policy reinstatement is covered.)
- Instead of delivering the check to Citizens herself, the senator allows Ashburn to come fetch it from her.
- Flores files a claim quickly on her mother's behalf, after which Bunker tells her a claims adjuster will be at her mother's home within 7-10 days.
- Flores tells Bunker 7-10 days is unacceptable, that she wants an adjuster at her mother's home "within 24 hours."
The story is partly corroborated by public records SSN requested Oct. 13 and obtained from Citizens two days later. They were redacted, Citizens said, to comply with confidentiality provisions in s. 627.351(6)(x), Florida Statutes and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.
The redactions are telling. The only reason to redact -- or black out -- information in these records is to keep "files" about a policyholder private. In other words, Flores was indeed discussing a policyholder, and she was doing it at the same time reflected on the dated texts/email. The wording around the edges of the redactions connects the dots. (See Ashburn's texts and Bunker's email, and note the dates.)
I figured if my sources were wrong, and my understanding of Citizens' public records was cockeyed, Flores could settle it by coming clean, un-redacting her conversations with Christine Ashburn and Candice Bunker. So I asked her if she would be willing to tell me what went on in those redacted conversations about her mom's policy/claim. Flores didn't respond personally, but her media consultant, Yohana de la Torre, did. "No," said de la Torre. "Senator will not tell you what went on in redacted conversations."
The Senate did not produce the Flores texts/emails I requested Oct. 13, nearly a month ago.
Neither did Flores agree to a telephone interview. Instead, she said through de la Torre she would take my written questions. Here are the most important ones.
My question: "Instead of delivering a check reinstating your mother's lapsed policy to Citizens -- did you have an employee come to your office at the Capitol to pick up the check? Is that something the ordinary policyholder could expect of Citizens, or do you think it would be considered a special favor for the chair of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee?"
Flores' answer: “Before the hurricane hit, I did not have an employee come to my office at the Capitol to pick up the check. After the hurricane hit, a Citizens employee offered to come to the Capitol and pick up a check from me. You would have to ask Citizens if this is something they would offer other policyholders.”
My question: Did you, when the hurricane was over, ask Citizens to send an adjuster to your mother's lightly damaged home, jumping her ahead of properties with more severe damage?
Flores' answer: "Absolutely not. After Hurricane Irma passed, I called the number on Citizens website to report a claim. I was told that an adjuster would be at the home within 7-10 days. The next day I received a call from a Citizens adjuster who told me the claim had been reassigned to him and he offered to come assess the damage that day.”
All Flores had to do to prove it -- to stop the rumors and shut someone like me up -- is release the texts and email, minus the redactions. She didn't do it.
The wall of secrecy in the Senate we hear about is real.
"Public officials should not hide behind the public records law to avoid accountability and oversight," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. "And even though these records may be exempt when in the custody and control of citizens, a public official can clear up any misunderstandings by answering simple questions posed by a citizen or the media."
Remember Sen. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami Beach? She tried to use her influence after Hurricane Irma to get FPL to jump her family to the top of the power restoration list -- and the media roasted her like a marshmallow.
The only real difference between Daphne Campbell and Anatere Flores is, Campbell is easier to bash when she steps out of line. She's a featherweight in comparison. Who's afraid of a minority-party senator without a single leadership role? Republican Flores, on the other hand, is a teacher's pet, the Senate's president pro tempore, one of Senate President Joe Negron's "Chosen Few." She's on seven of the Senate's most important committees, chairman of two and vice chairman of one. She has enough power to break half of the hottest hotshots in Tallahassee like a matchstick.
Good soldier Michael Peltier, media relations manager at Citizens, says he doesn't think it's so unusual for executives to do special favors for policyholders.
"Customer service is a top priority around here," Peltier chirped. "Most recently with Irma, there are countless individual examples of Citizens staff at all levels going the extra mile for customers" -- and he cited many of them. But, honestly: Raise your hand if you think Citizen' execs treat the average policyholder with a claim the same as the chairwoman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee who has a claim. Do you really think Ashburn and Bunker were texting with average policyholders and rallying around the flag to collect their checks?
Sen. Flores just preyed on a company that pretty much operates at her mercy. She's Banking & Insurance Committee chairwoman, for Lord's sake, hostile to Citizens at every turn. At Citizens Property Insurance Corporation rate hearing in Miami Aug. 23, Flores argued against the insurer, saying “Citizens has unfairly raised insurance rates on policyholders since 2010, forcing my South Florida constituents to pay $700 million more in premiums than in actual claims since 2004.”
So, I ask you, read around the redactions again. You actually think behind the happy birthday wishes and casual chat, Flores doesn't intimidate the pants off every man, woman and beast at Citizens -- especially the company's leadership?
Incidentally, I also asked Flores, "Was your mother offered coverage by several takeout insurance companies (as many as eight, I've been told), but you advised her to stay with Ciizens?"
The senator told me, "In 2015, I sponsored SB 1006 (which became HB 1087). This bill was designed to make the Citizens takeout process more consumer friendly, and ensure that takeout policies could not raise rates at a faster rate than Citizens could. Unfortunately, the governor vetoed this consumer-friendly bill that was passed unanimously by both chambers. Therefore, I advise anyone who contacts us about takeout offers to remain with Citizens, because Citizens has more stable rates and stability in the market. Unfortunately, I receive too many constituent complaints of how several takeout companies have folded after they took on Citizens policies, rates have gone up, and claims have not been paid.”
This seemed strange to me. The official state policy is to allow the private sector to work and reduce the state's insurance burden, yet the Senate Insurance Committee chairman is advising Floridians to stay in the company of last resort because it's subsidized by taxpayers. How conservative is that for a follow-my-lead Republican in a position of influence?
OK, Flores wanted to do something important for her mother, I get it. But by using her position to gain some special advantage -- at the very least, creating a perception that the state's insurers dance to her command -- particularly failing to be forthright with the public record ... there should be consequences.
After all the outrage over Daphne Campbell? Sen. Flores, carrying a dozen times the political heft of Campbell, should give up her presiding chair on the Banking & Insurance Committee.
Reach Nancy Smith at nsmithsunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLB Smith
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