NC insurance commissioner election: Lindberg bribery an issue


Convicted billionaire campaign donor Greg Lindberg’s name is coming up a lot in the race for insurance commissioner. This year’s contest for the regulatory office is a rematch from 2016, with Republican incumbent Mike Causey facing the two-term Democrat he defeated four years ago: Wayne Goodwin, who’s now chairman of the N.C. Democratic Party.

Causey played an instrumental role in the bribery case, wearing a wire for federal investigators and recording conversations in which Lindberg, his associates and then-N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes offered to bribe Causey with big campaign contributions in exchange for taking action that Lindberg sought for his insurance companies, according to court documents. Lindberg was recently sentenced to seven years in prison.

Goodwin was never accused of any criminal acts in the investigation. But he benefited from campaign contributions from Lindberg in 2016 — including a $500,000 donation to a PAC supporting Goodwin’s re-election — and he went to work for Lindberg’s company as a consultant for several months in 2017.

Goodwin said in a recent interview that Lindberg got “no special favors” from his office, and on insurance regulatory issues related to Lindberg’s companies, “I relied on the input from subject matter experts.”

Causey’s campaign is emphasizing Goodwin’s ties to Lindberg. A video ad posted on YouTube calls Goodwin “a fancy dancy politician who has made a living off politics … Wayne Goodwin is bought and paid for by Greg Lindberg.”

In an interview, Causey said voters should be concerned by Goodwin’s decision to accept Lindberg’s support in 2016. “If you have one entity that’s saying ‘we want to bankroll you,’ it raises a lot of red flags,” Causey said.

He said that when he took office, Department of Insurance employees told him they had concerns about how regulatory matters were handled under Goodwin. “It was the top administrators at the department that were overseeing everything, not allowing the subject matter experts to do what they normally do,” Causey said.

This company was handled differently than companies ordinarily would be.”

He didn’t provide specifics, but said there’s a “federal investigation that’s still ongoing.”

Goodwin said Causey is simply “trying to gain political points on it.” Had he been in office when Lindberg made his proposals, Goodwin said, “I would have been even more sensitive to anything that was inappropriate or unacceptable.”

As for his work with Lindberg’s companies after leaving office, Goodwin said they were among several clients he consulted for. The work involved attending industry conferences, serving on expert panels and writing reports.

Goodwin said he was not a registered lobbyist and “my work was predominantly outside of the state.”

Both candidates are seeking to run as incumbents by highlighting their accomplishments overseeing the agency. Goodwin said in eight years in office, he saved consumers billions of dollars through insurance rate cuts and rebates. Causey says he’s made the agency “more user-friendly” and helped 258,000 consumers navigate insurance issues. He has also reorganized the agency’s insurance fraud investigation division.

Goodwin has plenty of criticism for how Causey has run the Department of Insurance over the past four years. He takes issue with how Causey handled COVID-19 precautions at the agency’s offices, and he argues that Causey hasn’t adequately championed insurance consumers by advocating for Medicaid expansion and against auto insurance rate hikes.

Goodwin has repeatedly called Causey “Maskless Mike” on Twitter for appearing in group photos without a mask. And he’s criticized Causey’s decision in June to bring some agency employees who’d been working at home back into the office without mandating masks and social distancing.

Several Department of Insurance employees tested positive in the weeks after the change, and Causey ultimately allowed more employees to work from home. Causey’s approach, Goodwin says, “sends a very poor signal to how serious this coronavirus is.”

Causey says he wears a mask “in general,” but he’s visited rural fire departments where people choose not to wear them. “It’s not our place to protect people from themselves,” he said. “Our policy is to encourage people to wear a mask, but it’s not necessary if you’re in your own office and you don’t have anybody close to you.”

Goodwin also thinks the insurance commissioner should be advocating for Medicaid expansion, even though the policy decision ultimately rests with the governor and legislature. Causey hasn’t, he said.

The role of the insurance commissioner is to very aggressively support any measure that helps provide affordable, accessible insurance,” Goodwin said.

Causey argues that while “I’m not opposed to it, I’m not a legislator and it’s not my place. … We need to get a handle on the Medicaid fraud first. I think we need to get all the stakeholders together, sit down and have a conversation and at some point it’ll move.”

Elections board complaint

Goodwin took his criticism of Causey’s leadership a step farther in September, filing complaints against the incumbent with the Office of State Auditor and the State Board of Elections, calling for an investigation.

Goodwin’s complaint argues that Causey is using his office’s resources to campaign by holding dozens of events at volunteer fire departments across the state in which he presents them with a grant check.

Goodwin says those checks are typically just distributed by mail, and driving across the state and drumming up media coverage is “unnecessary” and intended to benefit Causey’s reelection bid. It could also violate state budget procedures on how state agencies distribute grant money, he said.

Causey says a similar complaint has already been dismissed by the State Ethics Commission, and he said the visits to fire departments are an important part of his job as state fire marshal. “Every time I can personally go out to a fire department and extend our support, I do that,” he said.

Goodwin’s complaint also says Causey’s campaign isn’t properly putting disclosures on video ads. Several ads posted to YouTube say they were paid for by “Friends of Mike Causey,” which is not the name of his official campaign committee or another legally registered committee. Others, including the ad titled “Fancy Dancy Wayne,” don’t include a disclosure at all.

Brad Crone, a consultant for Causey’s campaign, said the disclosure issues were a mistake made by a video producer and will be corrected.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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