STATE FARM'S HEAD ON A PLATTER
What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Thursday, January 31, 2008

GAO National Flood Insurance Program Report: A View from Outside the Industry

by Sop811

Insurance Issues Forum

Yesterday we pointed out several glaring omissions and factual inaccuracies in the Reuters drive by reporting on the General Accounting Office NFIP report. Today we see better coverage courtesy of Anita Lee at the Sun Herald. In addition to our analysis, Ms Lee points out some of the other conclusions reached by the GAO on the flaws inherent to the current program design:

The first flaw involves the three wise monkeys and the concept of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. While that old proverb works well in our personal conduct it is an invitation to disaster when used to manage a federal program:

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Wake Up and Smell the Formaldehyde

by James Polk
the New American Village

FEMA trailers are in the news again. Turns out they're not fit for human habitation. Problem is we've known it all along.

A scathing article on Salon.com sheds light on the toxic conditions and details the efforts of the United States government to cover it up.

http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/01/29/fema_coverup/

Meanwhile, better than two years on, over 30,000 hurricane victims still call FEMA trailers home. Read more . . .

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GAO: Flood insurers have 'inherent conflict of interest'




McClatchy Newspapers
1/30/2008
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WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office issued a report Wednesday on the National Flood Insurance Program that concluded insurers have "an inherent conflict of interest" in determining flood damage that the federal program must pay and the wind damage covered by private companies.

"I applaud the GAO for confirming that insurance companies have an inherent conflict of interest when they are allowed to determine whether to assign damages to their own wind insurance policies or to the federal flood insurance policy claims," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss.

The GAO concluded that the program needs greater transparency and oversight of wind and flood damage decisions.

"The report reinforces my proposal to give homeowners the option to buy wind and flood coverage in the same policy." The House passed Taylor's provision last September but the bill is stalled in the Senate.

"I urge the Senate to pass this legislation in order to stabilize the insurance market in coastal states," Taylor said. "I strongly support GAO's recommendations that insurance companies be required to turn over their wind claims files so that FEMA can verify that the companies applied the same standards to the flood insurance claims as to their own wind claims."

©2008, The Santa Fe New Mexican and MediaSpan

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

REP. TAYLOR COMMENTS ON GAO WIND AND FLOOD REPORT

Findings reinforce importance of multiple peril insurance provision

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Rep. Gene Taylor commented today on the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s report that greater transparency and oversight is needed for determining the extent of wind and flood damage after a storm.

“I applaud the GAO for confirming that insurance companies have an inherent conflict of interest when they are allowed to determine whether to assign damages to their own wind insurance policies or to the federal flood insurance policy claims,” Rep. Taylor said. “The report reinforces my proposal to give homeowners the option to buy wind and flood coverage in the same policy.”

The multiple peril insurance provision in H.R. 3121, passed by the House of Representatives in September, would allow coastal residents to buy insurance and know that hurricane damage would be covered. It would protect taxpayers by ensuring that more hurricane damage is covered by premiums rather than by disaster assistance programs.

The volatility and uncertainty of the coastal insurance market are the biggest obstacles to recovery on the Gulf Coast. Insurance companies are withdrawing from almost every coastal market, forcing many homeowners into state insurance pools.

“I urge the Senate to pass this legislation in order to stabilize the insurance market in coastal states,” Rep. Taylor said. “I strongly support GAO’s recommendations that insurance companies be required to turn over their wind claims files so that FEMA can verify that the companies applied the same standards to the flood insurance claims as to their own wind claims. I am disappointed, but not surprised, that FEMA opposes that recommendation. FEMA needs to recognize that its oversight responsibility is to protect federal taxpayers, not insurance companies.”

The GAO’s findings include these major points:

· A conflict of interest exists when insurance companies are responsible for determining both the extent of the flood damage that NFIP must pay and the extent of the wind damage that the insurance company itself must pay;

· NFIP cannot determine the accuracy of flood claims payments on properties that were subject to both high winds and flooding, because FEMA does not collect any information on wind claims and does not require companies to explain their procedures for distinguishing between wind and flood losses;

· Property owners with separate homeowners, wind and flood insurance policies cannot know in advance whether all their damage from a hurricane will be covered because of differences in the policy limits; the uncertainty is increased because NFIP cedes control of the damage determination to the insurance company despite a vested economic interest in maximizing the flood claim and minimizing the wind claim;

· Legal disputes between wind and flood coverage have increased because of insurance companies’ anti-concurrent causation clauses that attempt to exclude coverage of wind damage if flooding contributed to the loss.

The Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act, H.R. 3121, which passed the House in September, already addresses some of the concerns raised by the GAO report:

The House approved a Taylor amendment that prohibits insurance companies from using anti-concurrent causation language to exclude coverage of wind damage solely because flooding also contributed to the damage.

The House also approved an amendment offered by Rep. Mel Watt that would require insurance companies to report their actual expenses operating the flood program and to undergo an independent audit of their administration of NFIP policies every two years.

The complete GAO report can be found at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0828.pdf.

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Houston lawmakers blast pace of Katrina, Rita housing




By RICHARD S. DUNHAM
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON — Two Houston lawmakers upbraided federal and Texas officials for their slow response to finding replacement housing for victims of hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, called the efforts "a complete failure." Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, went further. "Some heads really should roll for letting this go on and on and on," he said at an investigative hearing held by the House Homeland Security Committee.

Jackson Lee and Green noted that thousands of Texans have been housed for more than three years in trailers laced with the cancer-causing chemical formaldehyde.

"HUD and FEMA are wrapped around this failure," Jackson Lee told state and federal emergency response officials. "The state of Texas has failed, plain and simple."

"The simple question I ask you: Why are people still in trailers in 2008?" Jackson Lee demanded.


"Madam, you are correct," said Nelson Bregón, of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "There are people still residing in trailers who should not be living in trailers."

During the afternoon-long hearing, there were several examples of federal agencies and Texas officials pointing the finger of blame at somebody else.

HUD's Bregón testified that the housing situation "is FEMA's responsibility." He said HUD is "very concerned" and is "working with the states." He called the situation "a travesty."

A Texas official defended the performance of Gov. Rick Perry, a target of Jackson Lee's ire.

Michael G. Gerber, executive director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said federal aid was only a fraction of state costs.

Jackson Lee was not convinced: "People are living in a disaster because of your inaction," she said.

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FEMA slowing Coast building




Chris Joyner • chris.joyner@jackson.gannett.com • January 30, 2008


BILOXI — Two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, less than a fourth of the 10,833 public rebuilding projects are completed.

Many haven't even broken ground.

And local officials are finding it harder to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie spent much of Tuesday in a meeting with FEMA accountants arguing over whether the federal government will help pay overtime costs incurred by his fire and police departments in the days and weeks after the storm.

"They are wanting to deobligate about half of that," he said.

In regular language, Skellie explained FEMA is hedging on paying the city's costs of more than $350,000 because the agency's contract accountants are not satisfied with the time sheets kept by first responders immediately after Katrina hit.

"We were just trying to survive. I mean, my God," Skellie said. "It's these people who worked around the clock pulling bodies out. ... They don't want to pay for any of that because a person's name doesn't appear on a time sheet."

It is a familiar complaint along the Coast, especially among the smaller cities. Recovery is slow because FEMA and its state-level partner, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, spent months arguing with local government officials over what is and is not covered under grants set aside to pay for rebuilding government buildings, roads and infrastructure and paying other public costs.

After more than two years of hearing the complaints, FEMA and MEMA officials Tuesday held a news briefing at their Biloxi headquarters to plead their case.

"There's a lot of misconceptions about this program and a lot of misconceptions about what FEMA and MEMA can and can't do," MEMA Director Mike Womack said.

Recovery is "one team, one fight," Womack said, but there are legal limits to the public assistance grants.

For instance, under the federal rules, a fire station destroyed by Katrina can be rebuilt completely using federal money, as long as it is rebuilt the way it was before the storm using the former building's "footprint." But if a city wants to expand the fire station, relocate it or use the money to improve a fire station across town, then the project has to go through another vetting process and the city may be required to provide some matching funds.

"It's an area that confuses the applicants quite a bit," Womack said.

The process is tougher on smaller communities. When FEMA negotiates payments with the largest cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, those cities bring in-house experts who are dedicated to shepherding projects through the labyrinthine federal process, but smaller cities do not have the money to hire their own advocates.

"Myself, the city clerk and my fire chief," Skellie said. "That's just about it."

Since the storm, about $1.3 billion has been paid out to cover the costs of rebuilding to local governments, school systems and eligible nonprofits.

But as Mississippi approaches its third hurricane season since Katrina, many of the projects have not made it out of the planning stages. In all, 22 percent of Mississippi's 10,833 public projects have been completed.

FEMA Transitional Recovery Office Director Sid Melton said the agency is working to improve the process. Development of an electronic database of ongoing projects is nearly completed, he said. Since the storm, tracking of progress of public assistance projects has been a manual process.

Melton said FEMA is a willing partner with local governments to get them the funds they need and get their projects done.

"Our job is to move the state of Mississippi forward, and if we are not doing that, then we need to get out of the way," he said.

That's just what Skellie would like to see happen. Once he receives bids on a project, Skellie said it takes several months for FEMA to review and approve them before work can begin.

He said he believes it is getting harder to get FEMA to approve projects as the agency pores over worksheets in what he sees as an attempt to reduce how much money his city receives.

"They are watching for thieves, and I understand that," he said. "We haven't asked for anything more than we need, and we still get punched in the nose."

Womack agreed one of the problems with the system is it is adversarial. He said he hopes the Katrina experience will spur Washington to find a new way, but in the meantime, there are rules that have to be followed.

But it's not all the fault of FEMA or MEMA, he said. Internal squabbling among local government officials has slowed the rebuilding, too, he said.

"There are disagreements in local governments on how to rebuild," he said. "These are very difficult decisions for local communities."

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Study Claims FEMA Ignored Toxic Findings




By EILEEN SULLIVAN
January 28, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Emergency Management Agency manipulated scientific research in order to play down the danger posed by formaldehyde in trailers issued to hurricane victims, according to an investigation by congressional Democrats released Monday.

FEMA "ignored, hid and manipulated government research on the potential impact of long-term exposure to formaldehyde" on Katrina and Rita victims now living in FEMA trailers, Democrats on a House Science and Technology subcommittee wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. FEMA is part of the Homeland Security Department.

In a separate letter, lawmakers said the federal health agency that provided guidance to FEMA was "complicit in giving FEMA precisely what they wanted."

Victims living in FEMA trailers have complained of health problems related to formaldehyde, but initial FEMA tests revealed the air quality in the trailers was safe if those trailers were properly ventilated. Formaldehyde is a common preservative found in building materials used in manufactured homes. It can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

FEMA said the health agency's Feb. 1, 2007 advice didn't address long-term health effects, but rather concerned ways to avoid toxic exposure to formaldehyde. "FEMA did not suppress or inappropriately influence any report," said agency spokesman James McIntyre.

The lawmakers are questioning the integrity of research done by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and said they don't trust FEMA to conduct an independent investigation into the toxicity of the formaldehyde in trailers.

The investigation, led by Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., found the health agency ignored research from one of its own experts, Christopher De Rosa.

Because the health opinion was completed without appropriate oversight, the results could be misleading, De Rosa wrote in a February 27, 2007 letter to a FEMA attorney that was obtained by the subcommittee.

"Any level of exposure to formaldehyde may pose a cancer risk, regardless of duration," De Rosa wrote. "Failure to communicate this issue is possibly misleading and a threat to public health."

In its initial round of testing, FEMA took samples from unoccupied trailers that had been aired out for days and compared them with federal standards for short-term exposure, according to the lawmakers. FEMA officials instructed scientists at the health agency to leave out details about long-term exposure in its consultation.

"Honest scientific studies don't start with the conclusion, and then work backwards from there," Miller said in statement.

FEMA is currently testing 500 of the 40,000 trailers, but the lawmakers said they have no confidence in the new testing and sampling procedures.

The test results are due to come out in February and FEMA plans to issue a final report in May.

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Officials: FEMA maps may wipe Bay off map

Much of city now in hazard zone



By J.R. WELSH
jrwelsh@sunherald.com


BAY ST. LOUIS -- A David and Goliath contest is emerging between this small bayfront city and the federal government, with local officials vowing to fight imposition of new FEMA flood-advisory standards they say will hamper future growth and perhaps slay it altogether.

City officials say FEMA flood maps that were unveiled recently place large parts of Bay St. Louis in zones whose designations will require impossible heights for new construction, and will make the cost of flood insurance beyond the reach of many homeowners.

The city already had flood maps that had been revised in the 1980s. But the new maps slated to replace them are more stringent and could impose far different circumstances. The new flood elevations were crafted by federal officials following Hurricane Katrina.

"We have to fight this at all costs. I personally think it will alter the history of Bay St. Louis," said City Councilman Doug Seal.

The maps place large portions of the city in zones designated as "special flood hazard areas" that have an annual 1 percent chance of experiencing a 100-year flood.

Along the bay front, FEMA maps show advisory base flood elevations ranging from 20 to 30 feet. In many areas off the open coast, they run as high as 27 feet. Flood elevations indicate the height above mean high tide at which construction can begin.

Mayor Eddie Favre illustrated the extent of the problem recently when local officials had a get-acquainted meeting with new U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, appointed to replace retired Sen. Trent Lott.

"The fourth block of Main Street - the middle of Bay St. Louis - is a hazard flood zone now," Favre told Wicker. Under FEMA's new advisory base flood elevations, homes will have to be constructed so high in the air that "instead of worrying about flood, we're worried about wind now," he said.

Councilman Bobby Compretta, who is also a Realtor, said he considers the flood elevations excessive, and fears they will squelch growth in the foreseeable future. "In my opinion, people are not going to rebuild," he said.

Bay St. Louis intends to appeal FEMA's flood maps, and has agreed to hire an engineering firm to assist in the effort. The city also got outside support this week when the Mississippi Municipal League held a conference in Jackson.

That group's executive committee passed a resolution asking that FEMA extend the time from three to six months for the city to review the flood-elevation maps. The resolution will now go to the Mississippi Legislature for support.

City Councilman Jim Thriffiley lobbied at the conference for support from other cities, and said state District 46 Sen. David Baria has agreed to enter the resolution into the record in the Senate.

"Hopefully, we can take the endorsement from the Legislature and use it in our fight," said Thriffiley, who called the new flood elevations "mega-bad. That's the only way I can describe it."

Seal said the FEMA elevations would essentially sink hopes for the city's newly incorporated area, which runs west to Highway 603 and north to Interstate 10. City officials had hoped to develop a sweeping retail and business corridor there to accommodate growth, generate new tax revenues and lessen dependence on income from casinos.

As things now stand, the new flood maps are throwing a long shadow over those plans.

"If we can't develop 603 and the corners of I-10 as a business corridor, it would have a devastating effect on Bay St. Louis," Seal said.


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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tell the networks to make Gulf Coast rebuilding the top topic in the presidential debates

Returning, recovering and rebuilding after the nation’s worst disaster has been left to poor – mostly Black – residents and volunteers, abandoned by their government. Here, Latonja Tucker paints her church in New Orleans. In November, Americans must elect a president who will implement the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project, which will create 100,000 jobs for residents and evacuees to rebuild their communities. Photo: Mike DuBose, UMNS

By Jeffrey Buchanan - San Franscisco Bay View, January 25, 2008

CNN, MSNBC and Fox News and the other networks that have hosted this primary season's 30 presidential debates have yet to ask each candidate how they plan to help rebuild communities in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. Though media attention for their struggles has faded more than two years after the 2005 hurricanes and levee failures, many of these communities have not been able to rebuild their schools, police stations, roads and other critical infrastructure as hundreds of thousands of residents remain displaced. The result is an American human rights crisis certainly worthy of being addressed as Americans choose their next president.

Through 14 Republican debates, no moderator has asked any Republican presidential candidates a single question about rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Moderators of the 16 Democratic events have not done much better, directing only a fraction of their debates, less than 1 percent, to Gulf Coast recovery.

In an interview with the Sun News before the Jan. 21 South Carolina debate, Rep. James Clyburn, the state's most senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which sponsored the debate, even named rebuilding infrastructure, specifically in the Gulf Coast, as a top issue he hoped to hear addressed in the debate. Still the topic was never touched on.

Top candidates from both parties have characterized the government's response to Hurricane Katrina as a failure during their respective debates. Still only once this primary season, at PBS's Democratic debate at Howard University, did the debate questioners ask each candidate a question related to Gulf Coast recovery. NPR's Michele Norris asked whether each candidate would support a federal law guaranteeing a human right to return home after Hurricane Katrina, based on international law. Though candidates hinted at their rebuilding plans, they were not pressed to explain the steps they would take to create the economic and social conditions necessary for residents to realize their rights.

Gulf Coast residents fear that important questions about the future of their communities and the hundreds of thousands of their friends and families who are still displaced will continue to go unasked and unanswered this primary season.

Things are not looking much better for the general election debates.

Despite letters of support from a bi-partisan list of seven presidential candidates and supportive editorials from USA Today, the New York Times, Time Magazine and the Washington Post, New Orleans' application to host one of four scheduled general election Presidential debates was recently denied. With New Orleans successfully hosting such large-scale events in 2008 as the Sugar Bowl and the NCAA Championship Game and set to host the NBA All-Star Game, city leaders found the snub shocking. Anne Milling, founder of Women of the Storm, the group which led the application effort with a consortium of local universities including Dillard, Loyola, Tulane and Xavier, called it, "a case of politics trumping the clear moral choice."

‘A defining moment in American history'

Debates are a time to make candidates take a stand on the most important issues facing American voters. National polling data indicates that Gulf Coast rebuilding is still important to Americans nationwide, not just those living in the region.

John Zogby, one of the top minds in the polling industry, wrote recently in Campaigns and Elections Magazine that polling data on domestic issues facing candidates in the 2008 elections indicates, "Katrina, over the long haul, will prove to be more of a defining moment in American history than the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." He went on to note that after witnessing the failed federal response to Gulf Coast recovery, American voters "hunger nationwide for a new model for the federal government."

Zogby found that Americans wanted a leader who would could unite the nation and marshal the necessary resources to rebuild after a disaster. He wrote that Americans wanted federal leadership with the flexibility to work with local leaders, including local governments, faith and community groups, and solve problems.

Still recovering - more than two years later

In terms of physical devastation, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the levee breakdown far surpasses any disaster in America's history. They caused more damage than our three largest disasters combined: the Sept. 11 attacks, Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake. The human face of the disaster can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who remain unable to return home.

Housing shortages threaten communities across the Gulf Coast. Thousands of families are about to be kicked out of FEMA trailers, which the federal government recently determined contain levels of toxins so strong that they have advised their employees not to enter the structures.

Federal programs like FEMA public assistance have proven slow and inflexible for rebuilding vital community infrastructure. USA Today recently reported FEMA had spent less than one fourth of the $4.5 billion federal dollars available for rebuilding critical community infrastructure across the region.

Critics claim current federal policy often leaves construction projects addressing long-term needs ineligible for federal aid. In New Orleans, this policy has resulted in infrastructure deficiencies with severe social and economic consequences.

With schools closed, students must travel long distances and some 300 students in New Orleans during the 2006-07 academic year were unable to even enroll.

Restricted public transit and battered roads limit access to work and services. Scarce childcare facilities limit options for working parents. Crime rates have risen while police headquarters operate out of FEMA trailers. Death rates rise as hospitals operate at diminished capacity.

Louisiana alone - not including damage in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Texas - has reported over $20 billion in public infrastructure damage due to the hurricanes and levee breaks, leaving significant unfunded needs.

Levee construction remains under-funded, and preventable erosion continues to destroy nature's flood protection, the wetlands, threatening returning residents. These issues impact the pace of recovery and ultimately the rights of residents to return to their communities to live with safety and dignity.

A handful of candidates this campaign season have traveled to the Gulf Coast. A few have even posted portions of their rebuilding plans on their websites but not all voters and Gulf Coast residents have access to this information. For residents who are still waiting on the federal government to fulfill its promises, questions remain about the presidential candidates' commitment to the region.

A new model for Gulf recovery

Recently, Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Charlie Melancon, D-La., and Gene Taylor, D-Miss., introduced a new model for Gulf Coast recovery in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 4048, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act. The policy was developed with the help of Gulf Coast residents, human rights groups and the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project, a college campus-based advocacy group. Utilizing a human rights-based framework, the legislation hopes to empower the region's greatest assets, the disaster's survivors, with the resources they need to lead.

Through funding infrastructure projects employing local and displaced workers to rebuild schools, police and fire stations, transportation, hospitals and flood protection and restoring the wetlands, the legislation aims to help heal the wounds left since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the levee breaks and allow residents to return to their neighborhood with safety and dignity. The bill gives resident and community leaders a greater voice in how their neighborhoods are rebuilt and works directly with community organizations to reach the goal of creating 100,000 living wage jobs and training opportunities for residents and displaced people primarily in the building trades.

The plan would create more opportunities for small and minority businesses while pumping more funds into the local economy and building the infrastructure and the trained workforce necessary for sustainable economic development. The legislation aims to address the region's human rights crisis through helping the displaced realize their right to return and participate in rebuilding their communities and providing economic opportunity to working families.

Stephen Bradberry, state head organizer with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in Louisiana, believes this bold plan will require the support of the next president to become a reality.

"The current president made a whole list of promises to residents about rebuilding the Gulf Coast, but the job is not done. The moderators of the presidential debates need to ask the next president whether they plan to right the situation," says Bradberry. "We need to put the candidates on record, "Do you support the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act to rebuild stronger communities across the region hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?"

Bring the Gulf Coast to the debate

Gulf Coast residents, ACORN members, students and supporters - like the online organizing group Color of Change and the RFK Center for Human Rights - launched an effort to bring Gulf Coast rebuilding back into national focus by first urging hosts of the presidential debates to get a straight answer from the candidates on Gulf Coast rebuilding. Together they hope to give the region a voice to influence the discussion, utilizing online advocacy tools.

"If the debate is not coming to the Gulf Coast, then we need to bring the Gulf to the debate," said Bradberry, winner of the prestigious RFK Human Rights Award in 2005.
The effort, aptly named Bring the Gulf Coast to the Debate, began by targeting Facebook, ABC and WMUR, co-hosts of the Jan. 5 Republican and Democratic New Hampshire primary debates. Supporters urged ABC and WMUR reporters and producers to ask the candidates about the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act. Many contacted ABC's World News Tonight host and debate moderator, Charles Gibson, through his recently opened account on the social networking site Facebook.com.

You can join the efforts' Facebook campaign.

Now supporters are gearing up for the Republican and Democratic California debates on Jan. 30 and 31 hosted by CNN, Politico and the Los Angeles Times. They will be the last debates before the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries.

Supporters can visit ColorofChange.com to learn how to urge the moderators of the Republican and Democratic California debates to stand in solidarity with Gulf Coast residents and ask the candidates about the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act using tools on Politico.com. The website also shows supporters how to send a letter to CNN and Los Angeles Times reporters and editorial staff urging them to ask the candidates about this important Gulf Coast rebuilding policy.

Dr. Scott Myers-Lipton, a San Jose State University professor who founded the 50-campus strong Gulf Coast Civic Works Project, noted that the bill is sponsored by a Californian in Congress, Rep. Lofgren, and additionally is supported by resolutions in both the California State Assembly and California Democratic Party.

"With so many Californians behind the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, there is no better time than these debates to ask the candidates if as president they will enact this critical plan to rebuild the Gulf Coast," says Dr. Lipton.

Though the Gulf Coast will not host a presidential debate, residents and their national supporters still have hope that the region's crisis can be brought back into the national debate this election season.

Currently questions on the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act for the Democratic and Republican candidates rank No. 1 and No. 2 most popular respectively on Politico.com.

"This is a unique opportunity to move these media organizations to finally ask the questions the people of the Gulf Coast and California and really all Americans need to hear answered," said Chris Hauck, a San Jose State University student and Gulf Coast Civic Works Project organizer.

Visit Color of Change to learn how to vote for the Gulf Coast questions and visit Solving Poverty to find out more about supporting the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Progressive Values in Action: MS Gulf Coast Volunteer Slideshow

by Ana Maria

From my New York progressive friends who came down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to volunteer their winter holiday time to help building four homes for Katrina families here in Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Mississippi, located in Hancock County--the county that Hurricane Katrina hit the worst comes this slide show of their time here in the rain and muck, cold and humidity. This slide show has FABULOUS music playing, so turn up your speakers and be ready to dance around!!



Sure, we have our troubles down here. Great music and dancing is always a great salve on our souls. I believe it will be yours as well. These are photos of my many new friends who remain in my heart for their extreme generosity and true compassion for our plight.

May each of them be blessed many times over throughout their lives. They came here to help because they saw the need and put their faith, their beliefs, their values in action. This is so much more than we've seen out of a White House that talks about faith and whose acts betray their words.


© 2008 Ana Maria Rosato. All rights reserved.
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Editorial: Presidential candidates should help solve Florida property-insurance crisis



EDITORIAL
January 25, 2008


If the candidates for president are smart, they'll keep promising relief to homeowners who've taken a beating on property insurance.

If the voters are smarter, they won't settle for amorphous pledges but demand specific action from candidates that can lower premiums and keep companies from ruthlessly dropping them.

The surest way for the candidates to show they'll take that action is to say they'll sign two bills that actually have passed the House, and that could make it to the next president's desk if the Senate also signs off on them.

The Klein-Mahoney bill would allow states like Florida with a government-sponsored insurance fund to voluntarily bundle their catastrophe risk. Backed by private markets, the fund could issue loans to states, reduce the insurance industry's risk and usher in more reasonably-priced policies for homeowners. State reforms largely have failed to do that.

The Gene Taylor bill would allow homeowners who get flood insurance through the federal government to also purchase wind policies from Washington. That's needed because companies too often after hurricanes have determined that flooding, not wind, damaged homes. That finding allows them to pocket premiums and make Washington disproportionately pay claims.

Together, the bills would bring fairness and stability to states' property-insurance markets. Together, they're the furthest Washington has come in years toward making insurers act more responsibly.

Any candidate serious about providing relief should get behind them. Hillary Clinton is co-sponsoring Klein-Mahoney in the Senate. Rudolph Giuliani says he'd sign Klein-Mahoney. John Edwards likes Klein-Mahoney. John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee offer qualified support for either a regional or national catastrophe fund. But none, Barack Obama included, has told us he or she would sign both bills. Homeowners should demand nothing less of them.

Copyright © 2008, Orlando Sentinel

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Mississippi plans Katrina grant diversion

State wants $600 million from housing program for huge port expansion


By Mike Stuckey, Senior news editor
MSNBC Jan. 25, 2008


While thousands of Mississippians who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina remain in FEMA trailers, the state intends to spend $600 million in federal grants originally earmarked for housing on a major expansion of the state-owned port — a project that could eventually include casino and resort facilities.

Despite strong objections from housing activists and the threat of hearings from two powerful congressional Democrats, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to approve the diversion of the funds on Friday. A HUD spokesman says the agency has little discretion at this point to block the switch.

Opponents of the move see it as a prime example of Mississippi’s Republican lobbyist-turned-governor, Haley Barbour, favoring rich and powerful interests over the region’s less fortunate.

“It’s just insanity, true insanity,” said Sister Martha Milner, a Catholic nun and board member of the Steps Coalition, the loudest voice on the Gulf Coast against the diversion of the funds.

Supporters see the money switch as sound economic policy that will help the port capture additional business and provide a bonanza of high-paying jobs.

“In order to remain a viable port, we have to do a good job with this repair and redevelopment,” said Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr.

The money in question is part of $5.5 billion in HUD Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) that Congress authorized for Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Administered by the Mississippi Development Authority, about $3.4 billion was allocated to replace and repair some of the nearly 170,000 owner-occupied homes destroyed or damaged by the storm. Another $600 million was set aside for programs to replace public housing, help small landlords fix their units and foster construction of new low- and moderate-income housing.

Waiver request
When it became clear that homeowners, who had to meet specific criteria on damage and insurance, would not tap all of the grant money, Barbour instructed the state development agency to seek a waiver from HUD to redirect $600 million for work on the port.

Mississippi, with the highest poverty rate of any state by several measures, already had won HUD waivers of rules that require the funds to benefit low- and moderate-income residents. Critics see the waivers as a product of the unparalleled influence with the Bush administration enjoyed by Barbour, a former Reagan White House political director, Republican National Committee chairman and legendary fixer who continues to receive checks from the Washington lobbying shop that still bears his name.

‘Absolutely no oversight’
Barbour “basically has free wheel,” said Milner of the Steps Coalition. “Unless we have a different administration (in the White House) he’ll do whatever he wants to do. There’s absolutely no oversight over any of this. Whatever he sends up there, they say OK to.”

The third busiest port on the Gulf of Mexico, Gulfport was planning expansion long before Katrina struck, hoping to grow as a result of new shipping traffic through the Panama Canal, which is being widened. In a 2003 master plan, the port also envisioned expanding casino operations, which have historically accounted for half of the port’s revenue.

After the storm, an update to the master plan found that Katrina had “accelerated redevelopment of port areas and opened new opportunities for the growth of the maritime and gaming markets.” The plan raises the prospect of new casino-resort development on port land as part of a public-private partnership, financed separately from the CDBG money.

It wasn't until early December, six months after the update was adopted by the port authority, that the state development authority sought a waiver from HUD to divert $600 million of the housing grant money to the port — more than double the net dollar damage reportedly sustained by the port from Katrina.

Barbour maintains that some of the federal grant money always was intended for port expansion. But the state development authority did not provide any documentation to support that. And despite repeated requests, agency spokeswoman Melissa Medley did not respond to other msnbc.com questions about the fund diversion and housing programs.

Conflicting versions
Barbour’s current position that part of the housing grant pool was always intended for the port is at odds with his March 2006 testimony before a Senate committee, in which he emphasized that the CDBG money was mostly committed to housing and sought new funds for the port. A year later, Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, did not mention port funding in testimony before Congress about the use of grant funds a few months before the new port master plan was adopted.

"The governor has stated since the earliest days after Katrina that the port is crucial to the overall recovery of the Mississippi Gulf Coast because of its huge economic impact in terms of jobs and commerce," Barbour Press Secretary Pete Smith told msnbc.com in an e-mail.

Port Executive Director Don Allee agreed to an interview with msnbc.com, then canceled it and did not schedule another despite repeated requests.

Cindy Singletary of Living Independence For Everyone, one of 50 nonprofit, religious and social advocacy groups that make up the Steps Coalition, sees the move to divert the housing funds as a bait-and-switch maneuver. “I have nothing against the port itself,” she said. “The main thing I’m against is the priority of it. … We have jobs on the coast. There’s ‘help wanted’ signs everywhere. But we don’t have homes, we don’t have apartments. … That, to me, should be the No. 1 priority for Mississippi.”

Democratic Reps. Barney Frank and Maxine Waters agree. In two letters to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, the veteran House members urged him to deny Mississippi’s request to use the money for the port. Using CDBG funds for the port expansion, “when so many families have yet to be able to return home, is misguided and disregards the continued need for available housing in Mississippi,” Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Waters, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, said in October, shortly after the state’s plans to divert the funds came to light. The two upped the ante in a second letter this week, threatening to hold hearings on “any waivers approved by the secretary.”

35,129 still in FEMA housing
In its “Mississippi CDBG Recovery Fund Report Card,” the Steps Coalition reported that as of mid-January more than 13,000 Mississippi families — or a total of 35,129 people — remained in FEMA housing, nearly 90 percent of them in small travel trailers and most of them ineligible for the CDBG-funded grants.

Another 15,500 households — more than 40,000 people — have open case files with long-term recovery organizations and need assistance to repair their homes and replace belongings, according to the report. Replacement of low-income rental housing also is moving very slowly, and government programs and incentives will restore fewer than half of the 28,514 units damaged and destroyed by Katrina, according to the coalition.

But Warr, the Gulfport mayor, said housing activists’ figures are inflated. “We do have a severe need for affordable housing, but that need is being addressed,” he said. “We will have, I would expect, 1,000 units more on the books just in Gulfport than we had before the storm.”

Warr said the port expansion is not nearly as divisive a local issue as it may appear to outsiders. “I think it’s being used as political fodder by individuals with perspectives other than what’s necessarily best for the coast,” he said. “Most of them are not down here, they are outside the coast, typically from other states.”

Smith, the Barbour spokesman, said the state's estimates of how much low-income or "workforce" housing will be built are higher than the coalition's at 17,000 to 21,000 units. Also, he emphasized, "none of the more than $1.2 billion in grants awarded to nearly 20,000 homeowners are in jeopardy."

That misses the point that plenty of homeowners who didn't qualify for that program and many non-homeowners still need help, say Steps Coalition members. “There’s no other explanation except that the state doesn’t think the lower income storm victims are as important a priority as the port," said Reilly Morse, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice, part of the coalition.

The arguing and pressure on HUD to deny the waiver may be for naught, said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman with the federal agency. Once Congress votes to send the money, “We only have the ability to say yes or no purely on the eligibility of the project,” said Sullivan, adding that CDBG funds are often used for economic development. “HUD doesn’t really have a dog in this fight. They do try and suck us into that vortex. But by statute we really have no discretion.”

Crossing the T's
Sullivan said HUD’s job now is to make sure that Mississippi gathered community input before deciding how to spend the funds and that other criteria for the program also are being met. Friday is the deadline for HUD to act, Sullivan said, adding that “the people making the decision are not best friends of Haley Barbour, but career professionals.”

Steve Adamske, a spokesman for Rep. Frank, questioned Sullivan’s characterization of HUD’s authority. “I don't believe we would be that wrong in the letter that we sent" in October imploring HUD Secretary Jackson to intervene, Adamske said. As to Barbour’s assertion that the money was always intended for the port, "We would dispute that pretty strongly."

© 2008 MSNBC Interactive

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22805282/

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Florida Asks Appeals Court To Reinstate Allstate Ban

By JEROME R. STOCKFISCH, The Tampa Tribune
Published: January 24, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Accusing Allstate Corp. of engaging in an "ongoing crime," state regulators asked a state appeals court Wednesday to reinstate an order prohibiting the insurer from conducting new business in Florida.

The Office of Insurance Regulation is pressing Allstate over state subpoenas calling for documents relating to the way the company sets its homeowners insurance rates.

Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said in a statement released Wednesday that Allstate "has continued to do everything it can to keep from providing the documents requested" and that now McCarty is "doing everything within my power to ensure that the documents are produced."

Regulators are trying to establish why, after the state took on more financial exposure in the event of a catastrophic hurricane in an effort to drive down homeowners' rates, many insurers failed to lower their rates or even sought rate increases.

Frustrated by Allstate's response to subpoenas issued Oct. 16, McCarty issued an order on Jan. 17 barring 10 Allstate companies from doing future business in the state. The companies wrote everything from lucrative auto policies to workers' compensation, motorcycle and marine lines.

The order was lifted the next day by the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, where state regulators on Wednesday filed their argument to reinstate the suspension.

"This doesn't change the fact that our agencies and agents across the state are open for business," said Allstate spokesman Adam Shores. "We are going to continue to provide the documents requested by the Office of Insurance Regulation as outlined in their subpoenas."

In its petition that resulted in the court lifting McCarty's order, Allstate argued that the regulation office was abusing its power to issue emergency orders that are supposed to be limited to specific immediate dangers to the public health, safety or welfare.

In Wednesday's response, regulators argued that Allstate's failure to produce documents did indeed indicate that "the Appellants are engaged in an ongoing violation of the Florida Insurance Code and thus an ongoing crime that in and of itself threatens safety and welfare of Florida citizens that is sufficient grounds" to issue the order pulling Allstate's licenses to do business. The regulators cited Chapter 624.15 of Florida statutes, which states that willful violations of the insurance code is a second-degree misdemeanor and could result in denial, suspension or revocation of business licenses.

"Appellants state that the 'Allstate companies have attempted and are continuing in good faith to respond to the subpoenas and produce as best they can and as quickly as is practicable the huge volumes of documents requested by the Office of Insurance Regulation.' Nothing could be further from the truth," states the petition filed Wednesday.

Regulators say Allstate produced 16 boxes of documents that include prior rate filings already held by their office, documents with missing pages and documents "falsely marked as 'Trade Secret'" that included prior rate filings already in their office's possession and available online.

The office said Allstate claimed it spent 2,000 personnel hours producing the documents. "The Office finds it remarkable that it has taken Allstate the equivalent of 285 days to produce 16 boxes of documents to the Office," the petition states.

Allstate spokesman Shores said the insurer is providing documents on a weekly basis. He said on Wednesday that the company turned over the controversial McKinsey documents, which are internal recommendations on how the company should settle claims, chiefly in the auto business. Regulators confirmed late Wednesday that it had received what were thought to be those documents, which have also been sought by regulators in other states.

The Tallahassee court did not indicate when it would rule.

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Hood seeks to continue State Farm probe

Asks judge to remove prohibition
By ANITA LEE
January 24, 2008




Mississippi's current and former attorneys general are back on the offensive against State Farm insurance companies.

Attorney General Jim Hood is asking a federal judge to dissolve a court order that prevents him from continuing a criminal investigation involving State Farm. Hood said the investigation is not related to a 2006 criminal probe by his office into State Farm's handling of policyholders' Hurricane Katrina claims. Former Attorney General Mike Moore, a mentor to Hood, filed a sworn statement to back Hood's assertion that the 2006 investigation was not intended to coerce State Farm into a settlement of policyholder claims.

Court records indicate State Farm and Hood disagree over a subpoena for State Farm records Hood wants for his current criminal investigation. The investigation involves State Farm's handling of National Flood Insurance Program claims, also the subject of federal inquiries, according to a December letter State Farm wrote Hood objecting to the subpoena.

State Farm said the subpoena violates a January 2007 agreement with Hood to end a criminal investigation into the company's Katrina claims-handling practices in exchange for a global settlement with Coast policyholders.

Hood said the agreement applied to his 2006 investigation, but the company has no right to "blanket immunity from any criminal acts related to Hurricane Katrina."

U.S. District Judge David C. Bramlette III is expected to reconvene a hearing in Jackson to consider whether he should lift suspension of Hood's investigation.

State Farm has accused Hood of using the threat of criminal prosecution to coerce settlement of claims for policyholders represented by his political allies, including attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs and Moore.

Moore said in a sworn statement he and Hood did not use the threat of criminal prosecution to coerce State Farm into the proposed global settlement with policyholders in January 2007. Instead, Moore said, State Farm introduced the criminal investigation into settlement talks, not Hood. Moore said State Farm would agree to resolve policyholder claims only if the investigation ended.

Moore also has filed a separate document in a policyholders' lawsuit, describing his role as "facilitator and negotiator" between parties to the proposed global settlement. He said State Farm encouraged him to explain the settlement in a federal court hearing, after which U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. rejected the agreement. The Scruggs Katrina Group of attorneys already had reached a settlement with State Farm in November 2006 on behalf of 640 clients, which Moore says led to negotiations for a global settlement applying to all Coast policyholders.

Moore and Scruggs also worked together in the 1990s, while Moore was attorney general, to reach landmark settlement of a lawsuit they filed against tobacco companies on the state's behalf.

Scruggs and two other members of his Oxford law firm were indicted in late November on charges they conspired to bribe a state court judge in a dispute over legal fees earned from the 2006 settlement with State Farm. Jackson attorney John G. Jones filed the lawsuit in March, after his firm withdrew from SKG.

As a result of the federal indictment, the Scruggs attorneys also withdrew from SKG, which then changed its name to the Katrina Litigation Group.

State Farm has asked that Scruggs Katrina Group, and now the Katrina Litigation Group, be removed from policyholder cases, alleging ethical and legal improprieties. KLG also has denied any improprieties.

Senter, who is presiding over policyholder lawsuits filed in Gulfport, is expected to decide whether the KLG should be disqualified.

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Mississippi to Use Some Hurricane Aid for Housing Program




By LESLIE EATON
January 24, 2008

As Mississippi awaits a decision on whether it can spend $600 million of federal hurricane relief on a controversial plan to rebuild and expand a shipping port, the state has added $100 million of federal aid to a program to develop housing for low- and moderate-income workers.

The addition, which brings the housing program to $250 million, will produce more than 2,500 housing units, said Gov. Haley Barbour, who announced the increase on Tuesday.

Though it has been widely praised for the speed of its hurricane recovery effort, Mississippi has been criticized by religious and civic groups for slighting the needs of the poor. Congress gave the state $5.5 billion in hurricane recovery grants, with the proviso that half of it should be used to help low-income families, but critics say that less than a quarter of the money is being used that way.

The new allocation may not dampen that criticism because the money is being transferred from another program that was supposed to help the poor by giving grants to low-income homeowners whose houses flooded in Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge. That program received fewer applications than expected, the governor’s spokesman, Pete Smith, wrote in an e-mail message.

The state has distributed about $217 million in grants to more than 3,000 applicants to that program, according to data from the Mississippi Development Authority. A larger program, which primarily serves wealthier homeowners, has distributed more than $1 billion to more than 15,000 homeowners.

Advocates for the poor said that they were concerned that not everyone who qualified for a rebuilding grant had received one, and that in any event the state was still not committing enough money to programs to replace low-income housing, to help renters or to assist people whose houses were damaged by wind rather than flooding.

“Washington is really examining how successful Mississippi’s recovery is for all of its citizens,” said Kimberly Miller, state policy specialist for Oxfam America in Biloxi.

Her group has urged the Department of Housing and Urban Development to reject the state’s bid to use hurricane recovery money to expand the port, in Gulfport, which was damaged by the hurricane.

The state has asked the agency to waive a rule that limits economic development spending to about $50,000 per job created.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

MS-Senate Race: The Nose Test Knows Best

by Ana Maria

The battle for Trent Lott's seat in the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance of this year's election cycle and with it the mantle of Lott's leadership on all things Katrina--especially Insurance Reform. Last year's tumultuous election for the insurance commissioner position had the 32-year incumbent George Dale screaming all over the place about how hard he had worked on behalf of Mississippi's home owners after Katrina.

Employing the nose test of politics in last year's election, Democratic voters booted out Dale in the primary believing him to be protecting the interests of the insurance industry rather than protecting homeowners. Dale's words and actions didn't mesh. Anyone can talk the talk regarding Katrina recovery and insurance reform, but walking the walk requires passing South Mississippians' nose test.

A few weeks ago, in a piece titled Musgrove’s Ties to Big Insurance Smells to High Heaven, I described the impeccable noses of folks down here in Katrina Land, particularly when it comes to politicians and the insurance industry that continues to betray us.

There is a special word for those who speak empty words and act in ways contrary to their words: hypocrites. With FEMA and the insurance industry pulling the wool over our eyes within the last few years down here in Katrina Land, we don’t take kindly to hypocrites—particularly of the political persuasion. And we can sure smell 'em a mile or two away. That fishiness is something that . . . cologne cannot cover.
This week, we got confirmation on the accuracy of our political nose test.
Former Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale has joined former Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley on the lobbying staff of the law firm of Adams & Reese LLP, further developing the firm's insurance regulation specialty.


In other words, George Dale is a lobbyist for a law firm that represents insurance companies. Ahhh, the sweet smell of validation.

MS-Senate Race: The Nose Test Knows Best
Electing the candidate who will replace Senator Trent Lott requires us to employ once again the nose test of politics. South Mississippi remains in steady--but extremely s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w--recovery mode. Purely and simply, the insurance industry betrayed us with denying legitimate wind claims, not paying for cost-of-living-expenses while our homes were being rebuilt, then jacking up premiums beyond the point of no longer being affordable for average South Mississippi families and business owners. Watch the short videos of Hancock County Executive Director Tish Haas, Hancock Bank Chairman George Schloegel, and others as they describe the incredible hardship that the insurance industry has imposed on South Mississippi families and businesses.

In Musgrove’s Ties to Big Insurance Smells to High Heaven, I wrote
When it comes to seeing clearly the insurance industry’s responsibility in creating the economic devastation it caused South Mississippi’s Katrina-ravaged home and business owners, former Governor Ronnie Musgrove can’t see past the end of his paycheck. Since July 2004, Musgrove has been on the payroll of the law firm Copeland, Cook, Taylor & Bush, the same law firm that Gulf Coast News reported “is involved what with almost every Mississippi insurance case.” And not on the side of home and business owners, either.

Greg Copeland, the firm's founding member, is “ a longtime lobbyist for the insurance industry” . . . and the attorney for the American Insurance Association . . . and State Farm . . . and the recently ousted state insurance commissioner George Dale, who refers to Copeland as a “ good friend.”
Obviously, Musgrove has conflicts of interest that won't pass South Mississippi's smell test on Insurance Reform and Katrina.

His republican buddy and former roommate, Interim Senator Roger Wicker won't pass the smell test either when it comes to veterans issues, another HUGE issue here in South Mississippi and throughout the rest of the state as well. Every time an insurance company refused to pay or paid pennies on the dollar to a home or business owner, chances are rather high that the insurance company was betraying a family member of a vet . . . if not the vets themselves. Wicker's congressional voting record on key votes from the Disabled American Veterans shows the kind of man Wicker is when it comes to standing up for our men and women in uniform.
In 2006 alone, the DAV gave Wicker a 50% rating. In 2005, the DAV rated Wicker with a whopping goose egg-->0%. In 2004, the DAV rated Wicker with another whopping goose egg-->0%. In 2003, the DAV rated Wicker . . . with another goose egg-->0%!!!
Since writing that in MS Senate race holds Katrina Recovery, Insurance Reform Future, I have found that the DAV rated Wicker with another goose egg in . . . 2002. WOW! Four years in a row from 2002 through 2005, Wicker failed to show up for duty on behalf of our disabled veterans. That's not just going AWOL. That's outright desertion, in my book.

By way of contrast, the DAV rated former Congressman Ronnie Shows 100% in 2002, 100% in 2001, and 100% in 2000. Shows is from South Mississippi, so I anticipate that his understanding of the issues facing families and businesses in the wake of Katrina has more of a personal connection than the cold office of his State Farm opponent Mustgo Musgrove. When it comes to disabled vets--be they in South Mississippi or elsewhere in the state, Shows showed up for duty each and every time which is in stark contrast to the deserter on disabled vet issues Interim Senator Wicker.

Katrina recovery, insurance reform, and vets issues are intimately connected for plenty of South Mississippi families, like my own. Count on voters employing the nose test of politics to the upcoming U.S. Senate election to replace Senator Trent Lott who was good on both issues. George Dale can attest to the fact that South Mississippi voters, in particular, can sniff out hypocrites far and wide . . . and vote for their opponent.

© 2008 Ana Maria Rosato. All rights reserved.
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Former Miss. insurance commissioner joins Adams & Reese




January 22, 2008
By Rebecca Mowbray


Former Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale has joined former Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley on the lobbying staff of the law firm of Adams & Reese LLP, further developing the firm's insurance regulation specialty.

Dale, the nation's longest serving insurance commissioner, was ousted in the Mississippi Democratic primary in August after eight terms and 32 years on the job amid public frustration over Hurricane Katrina. He is working in the firm's Jackson office as a non-lawyer senior governmental affairs adviser and a member of the governmental relations team.

In February 2006, Wooley, an attorney, joined Adams & Reese in Baton Rouge after he left his post as insurance commissioner six months after Hurricane Katrina and mid-way through his term. He works of counsel on the governmental relations team of the special business services group.

The New Orleans-based Adams & Reese is one of the largest law firms in the South with offices in Baton Rouge; Birmingham and Mobile, Ala.; Jackson, Miss.; Houston; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; as well as Washington, D.C.

In Louisiana, it has an impressive roster of insurance clients, including State Farm, Allstate, USAA, Audubon Insurance Co., Balboa Insurance Group, Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana, Progressive Insurance Co., Louisiana Land Title Association, Humana Inc. and Oschner Health Plan.

In press release on his hire, Adams & Reese touted Dale's knowledge of the insurance industry and the governmental process. "George adds strength to our capabilities as specialists in insurance regulatory matters, in Mississippi and beyond .Â¥.Â¥. His presence will further develop and compliment our regional and national specialized governmental relations practice."

Dale said that he has always tried to work in the best interests of the people of Mississippi, and joining Adams & Reese gives him the opportunity to serve in a different capacity. "I will continue to look after the best interests of clients from Mississippi to Louisiana and Washington, D.C. due to the firm's regional footprint and strength of their governmental relations practice," he said in the release.

Bob Hunter, a former Texas insurance commissioner who is director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America, said that Dale's new job at a law firm that represents so many insurance interests is another unfortunate tale of regulators caring more about the industry than the people who elected them.

"Nothing surprises me any more. The insurance industry and the regulators are so intertwined. We've had now two presidents of the NAIC (National Association of Insurance Commissioners) go directly to lobbying jobs with the insurance industry, and we've had so many former insurance commissioners head off in that direction, it's disgusting. How can the public trust state regulation with all this going on?" Hunter asked.

In its release, Adams & Reese boasts about its tradition of hiring former elected officials and cites examples of former Congressmen, state representatives, judges and even a parish leader in its ranks. It does not mention Wooley.

Last year, audit problems at Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which was created under Wooley's tenure as insurance commissioner, sparked probes by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and then a federal grand jury.

In a legislative audit advisory council hearing this fall on Citizens, Wooley testified that his "No. 1 priority was not to go to jail" as his three predecessors had. In December, when Wooley was again asked to appear before the committee, criminal defense attorney Edward Castaing Jr. appeared in his place and said that he had instructed Wooley not to testify until the state provided the documents on which questions would be based.

Hunter found the omission of Wooley's name from the release puzzling, given that Adams & Reese says it is trying to build its insurance practice.


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Friday, January 18, 2008

MS-Sen: Mustgo Musgrove's Lawfirm Defending Big Insurance on Gulf Coast

by Ana Maria

Several articles in this week's Sun Herald disclose details of yet another brutal, ugly court battle between a beleaguered Katrina family and their insurance carrier, USAA. In this battle, USAA's hired gun is apparently desperately hoping to denounce the evidence that a tornado had ripped the home apart hours before the water came ashore. Today's story reported

Hours before Hurricane Katrina's storm surge arrived, the Henderson Point home of David and Marilyn Aiken had been hit by a tornado and was long gone, forensic engineer Charles Ivy told the court Thursday morning.

He agreed reluctantly under questioning by Greg Copeland, attorney for USAA Casualty Insurance Co., that the surge would have been enough to destroy the house if the house were still there.
[Emphasis mine.]

If the house were still there. I see. And IF wind had driven the Southern California fires across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, IF that had happened and the house had been standing there--which it wasn't given that one of Hurricane Katrina's tornadoes had already blown it away--IF those Southern California fires had come through that property, would the house have been engulfed in its flames??? Hypothetically, speaking, of course.

Wow, not even the really old reruns of Matlock have these kinds of really bad court room lines written in them. Please, when the Hollywood writers strike ends, the Copeland law firm could consider hiring a few to prepare better court room drama scripts for them.

Greg Copeland, founding partner of Copeland, Cook, Taylor & Bush. We've heard that name before. That would be the same Greg Copeland who is a longtime lobbyist for the insurance industry here in Mississippi, the same Greg Copeland whom the recently ousted Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale called "a good friend" and whom Dale had hired as his personal attorney for a court battle with the state Democratic Party, the same Republican law firm that represents the American Insurance Association, and the same Greg Copeland whose law firm"serves as general counsel to Mississippi's largest property and casualty insurer and as local counsel for numerous other insurance companies." On its corporate website, State Farm proudly proclaims it is Mississippi's largest homeowners insurer. Copeland's law firm is State Farm's Hired Guns. Yes, that Mr. Greg Copeland.

Copeland is defending USAA's in a lawsuit that "claims USAA and Rimkus Consulting Group Inc., which was employed by USAA, conspired to to defraud them. Earlier testimony revolved around whether changes to a property report by structural engineer James W. Jordan were made to downplay wind damage so USAA would owe less money."

The homeowner's assert that the companies “intentionally and with forethought came up with a plan to deny legitimate claims.” This lawsuit is like hundreds and hundreds of others in which Big Insurance is accused of allegedly finagling its way out of paying for wind damage that Hurricane Katrina caused. The photo below is a great example of what the Big Guns of Big Insurance are shooting at. The photo and caption are compliments of Insurance Issues Forum.

Wind of Water?
Photo compliments of Insurance Issues Forum

Big Insurance's Appalling Politics
What makes this case particularly appalling is that it reminds us on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that Big Insurance is still gunning after us, our livelihoods, our communities. It reminds us that Big Insurance is still coming into our court rooms lawyered up with extremely well paid Hired Guns whose job it is to push homeowner insurance claims into the "denied" department and leaving financially devastated homeowners blowing in the wind.

Politically speaking, what makes this case specifically appalling is that Greg Copeland is the founder of the law firm where U.S. Senate candidate Ronnie Musgrove is on the firm's payroll. With this kind of apparent conflict of interest between the Big Insurance law firm that has been paying Mustgo's salary since 2004 and those of us dealing with the handiwork of Big Insurance law firms, how Mustgo has convinced himself that he can get plenty enough of South Mississippi votes come election time is, perhaps, an adventure into fantasy land. For those of us with family, friends, and communities remaining financially devastated from Big Insurance's Big Betrayal, we live and breathe the harsh reality of Big Insurance's Big Betrayal . . . brought to us by the Big Gun Law firms, like Mustgo's.

Yeah, right, like Musgrove is going to get rid of this kind of baggage that he's been happily carrying around since 2004. Anything touching Big Insurance in a high profile campaign like the one to elect someone to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Senator Trent Lott is going to be as toxic as a FEMA trailer. Just ask George Dale how his cozy relationship with Big Insurance paid out for him in last year's election. For those unfamiliar with Mississippi's recent politics, Dale had been the insurance commish for 32 years and lost the election in a upset defeat by fellow Democrat Gary Anderson. It was a "down ticket" election. But the insurance woes of South Mississippi precluded Dale from retaining his office. Trent Lott's seat in the U.S. Senate is an especially great loss where insurance reform is concerned. Lott turned his personal loss in Katrina into a crusade against the insurance industry with whom he had had friendly relations for a very long time. Like many others, Lott ended up suing his insurance carrier, State Farm.

What an insult for Musgrove to believe that South Mississippians will overlook him being on the payroll of the law firm that defends State Farm and other insurance companies that are doing their best to rip off Katrina's families and businesses. We'll trade in Trent Lott who sued State Farm for an attorney who works for State Farm's lawyers?!

Naturally there are those that believe Mustgo will have an awakening regarding these obvious conflicts of interest while he is pocketing the money from his salary from Greg Copeland's law firm.

Anyone to believe that also believes that we're already fully recovered here inside Katrina Land, the private insurance industry should remain left to its own to do with us as it pleases, and someone can win statewide office in Mississippi without a significant portion of votes from South Mississippi.

This line of thinking is somewhere between fantasy land and pure hogwash. Regardless of which it is, that bait won't catch any fish around here.

The picture to the left is still an extremely common site all over this Katrina-ravaged region. Much is as if time stands still from that fateful day in August 2005. We can see the TV ads already. Photos of slabs like this intermingled with the logos of Big Insurance like State Farm and USAA. A voice over states that one of the largest defenders of Big Insurance has put up one of its own lawyers to represent Mississippi in the United States Senate claiming that the lawyer will represent the interests of Katrina families and help reform Big Insurance. The voice over continues, "We know something fishy when we smell it."

Or something like that. Musgrove Mustgo. When reading the Sun Herald's articles this week, I'm sure many readers again became disgusted with the antics of Big Insurance and their Hired Guns.

How appalling that any of our families, friends, and neighbors have had to hire attorneys to haul into court insurance companies that refuse to pay legitimate wind damage claims from Hurricane Katrina. How appalling that the CEOs and boards of directors of these insurance companies make fortunes off the misfortunes of their fellow Americans, and do so by pouring salt into our wounds through refusing to pay our legitimate claims. How appalling that the CEOs and boards of directors can actually find anyone willing to defend their indefensible and unconscionable decisions not to pay the legitimate claims but rather to pocket the claim money through pickpocketing from their customers pocketbooks.

The result? Insurance execs' pay up dramatically, one article title pronounced.

This week, the Sun Herald reported that USAA and Rimkus had allegedly conspired to rip off the homeowner in the coastal Harrison County through some kind of report switching scenario where the report from the engineer who actually examined the property and wrote up the report was altered.

USAA only paid the homeowners 25% of what the policy was worth. Copeland defended this paltry sum by essentially claiming that the homeowners were greedy. That's right. The Big Gun for Big Insurance claimed that the homeowner was greedy because, well, the customer expected the policy to be paid in full. The testimony provided apparently demonstrated that
a tornado being tracked by the National Weather Service in New Orleans around 3 a.m. Aug. 29 most likely passed directly over the Aikens' house hours before the waters rose.
The nerve some of us have! Paying premiums for wind coverage all these years and expecting our financial security to be in good hands, expecting our families to be treated like good neighbors, expecting that wind damage be rightly compensated rather than pretending that the flood did the damage.

Good grief! What the heck could we have been thinking?! To listen to Big Insurance, their Hired Guns, or other Big Insurance apologists, we should be grateful to have the opportunity to pay for insurance that never, ever, ever pays off when tornadoes or hurricane force winds blow away our homes, our businesses. Baloney!

Ensuring an Explosive Conversation
Go to any place inside the Katrina-ravaged region be it in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama and mention the word insurance and watch the verbal and emotional fireworks explode every where. Otherwise fun-loving, polite, friendly people turn into something . . . different. Scowls, dirty looks, testy dispositions, and talk of physical harm to Big Insurance types, their enablers, and their apologists are among the many reactions to which we'll become privy.

We're colorful down here so be forewarned.

Talking about Big Insurance brings out tremendous passion fueled by anger steeped in unfathomable betrayal. It unites us across every kind of divide be it political (Democrat, Republican, or Independent), religious, economic, racial, gender, education, and so forth.

Thinking that anyone associated with Big Insurance can win Trent Lott's U.S. Senate seat need only remember that that was George Dale's undoing that cost him his primary election last August.


© 2008 Ana Maria Rosato. All rights reserved.
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Structural engineer testifies in USAA trial




By ANITA LEE
SUN HERALD, January 15, 2008


GULFPORT -- A structural engineer admitted he changed a report that detailed Hurricane Katrina damage to a homeowner’s property, but told a jury he did so for accuracy and clarity rather than to downplay wind damage so USAA Casualty Insurance Co. would owe less money.

Structural engineer James W. Jordan reviewed several changes he made to the report completed by engineer Roverta Chapa, who actually inspected the property at Henderson Point on the Bay of St. Louis in Harrison County. Chapa and Jordan did not communicate before Jordan made the changes, which was against policy established by Jordan’s employer, Rimkus Consulting Group Inc.

Policyholders David W. and Marilyn M. Aiken claim Rimkus and USAA conspired to defraud them. They want their insurance claim paid in full, plus extra damages to punish the companies. Their lawsuit will resume this morning with testimony from Chapa.

Rimkus and USAA claim the Aikens are seeking more money than they deserve because federal flood insurance paid them policy limits for tidal surge damage, while USAA offered a check to cover what the wind could have destroyed. USAA and other insurance companies exclude such flood damage from coverage, which has led to hundreds of disputes between policyholders and insurers. However, this is the first case with claims of fraudulent engineering reports to reach trial in federal court.

The Aikens maintain a tornado destroyed their vacation home before 25 feet of water inundated the property.

USAA attorney Greg Copeland told the jury during opening arguments that the Aikens simply wanted to maximize their payments for Katrina damage. Their flood coverage totalled $278,000. USAA paid $178,205 in structural and contents damage on a policy that provided more than $680,000 in coverage.

But the Aikens’ attorney, George W. Healy IV, told the jury that evidence would show the companies “intentionally and with forethought came up with a plan to deny legitimate claims.”

Rimkus attorney David Ward said testimony will show the Aikens hired their own engineer because David Aiken accompanied the Rimkus engineer on his inspection and knew the engineer thought water had caused most of the damage. Ward told the jury they would hear firsthand about communications between Rimkus and USAA, so they should not believe Healy. “You can be the judge of the facts,” he said, “not the allegations.”

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Engineer: Tornado destroyed house



By PAM FIRMIN
Published January 19, 2008


GULFPORT -- Hours before Hurricane Katrina's storm surge arrived, the Henderson Point home of David and Marilyn Aiken had been hit by a tornado and was long gone, forensic engineer Charles Ivy told the court Thursday morning.

He agreed reluctantly under questioning by Greg Copeland, attorney for USAA Casualty Insurance Co., that the surge would have been enough to destroy the house if the house were still there.

The report Ivy prepared to back up his findings went under the microscope with intensive questioning by Copeland, who lost patience with the witnesses' often rambling responses and complained to U. S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr., "He is not responding in any way."

"Repeat the question," Senter instructed.

The Aikens, represented by George W. Healy IV, are suing USAA and Rimkus Consulting Group Inc., which was employed by USAA, for conspiring to defraud them. They seek full payment of their $680,000 homeowner-insurance policy with USAA, which paid them $178,000.

Earlier testimony came from Rimkus engineers. One inspected the Aikens' property and the other later made changes to that report without communicating with its author, which is against the company's policy.

Rimkus attorney David Ward read verbatim from Ivy's pretrial statement that he got data for his report from a preliminary storm model, and questioned Ivy's reasons for not updating it when better data became available as time went on.

Healy's next witnesses were to be Rimkus employee Paul Coleman and USAA employee David Rummel.

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Experts assert pre-surge tornado damage in USAA trial

Testimony in trial against insurer USAA




By PAM FIRMIN
Published January 17, 2008


GULFPORT --Testifying as expert witnesses, a meteorologist and a forensic engineer Wednesday afternoon described why tornadic force rather than storm surge was most likely responsible for the Katrina destruction of David and Marilyn Aiken's home in Henderson Point.

A lawsuit filed by the Aikens seeks damages and full payment of their $680,000 insurance policy with USAA Casualty Insurance Co., which paid them $178,000 in structural and contents damage. The suit claims USAA and Rimkus Consulting Group Inc., which was employed by USAA, conspired to to defraud them. Earlier testimony revolved around whether changes to a property report by structural engineer James W. Jordan were made to downplay wind damage so USAA would owe less money.

On Wednesday, Day 3 of the trial projected to last several weeks, presiding U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. frequently tried to move proceedings along, one time telling attorneys who haggled over details of intricate meteorological documents that it was "not necessary to go over every bit of the document" and later that "everybody's tired of hearing his jabbering back and forth."

Documents were provided by meteorologist Charles Barrere of Norman, Oka., formerly of the New Orleans area, who said they showed a tornado being tracked by the National Weather Service in New Orleans around 3 a.m. Aug. 29 most likely passed directly over the Aikens' house hours before the waters rose. The eight jurors were able to look at these on monitors in front of their seats.

Dr. Charles Ivy, a forensic engineer from Florida, said it was significant that 90 percent of the nails on surviving beams at the Aiken property were bent in a direction from north to south and that four sturdy frames still standing were "whipped toward the west, leaning toward the direction the water came from. If water caused the destruction, they would have been leaning toward the east."

Court begins today with cross examination of Ivy by USAA attorney Greg Copeland and Rimkus attorney David Ward.


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