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Montana Official Raises Funds From Trial Lawyers

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NU Online News Service, Nov. 30, 3:58 p.m. – A letter from Montana Commissioner John Morrison to the insurance segment of the American Trial Lawyers Association, Washington, soliciting funds to expunge campaign debt has insurers protesting what they say is a conflict of interest.

While leaders in the insurance industry declined to speak for attribution at press time, they did express their concern, a concern they intend to raise to the leadership of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Kansas City, Mo.

The Oct. 2 letter from Morrison asks for help in erasing debt so that “I can get on with my fight to protect consumers–all across the country.”

Morrison notes in the letter that “historically, many insurance commissioners and the NAIC have had close ties with the industry.” He also notes that “Today, I am the only consumer trial lawyer among the 50 plus commissioners.”

Morrison outlines regulatory consumer initiatives that he is working on at the NAIC. Those initiatives include the creation of a consumer protection working group that Morrison chairs.

Additionally, Morrison notes an NAIC complaint data base system that is scheduled to become operational on December 1. The data base shows the number of complaints against each insurer, classified by type, and information about the insurer. In a later phase of the initiative, Morrison writes that an attempt will be made to make individual complaints available.

In an interview with National Underwriter, Morrison says that the letter does not present a conflict of interest because “I do not regulate trial lawyers.”

To date, he says that the amount of money raised by the letter to the several hundred national members of the insurance segment of the ATLA has been under $2,000. Morrison says his campaign debt stands at about $35,000.

The reason, according to Morrison, that he approached lawyers nationally, is that there is a $400 limit per person in Montana and given the small amount it was necessary to raise money outside the state.

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When asked if he would return the contributions, he said “absolutely, not.” He noted fund raisers thrown by the insurance industry for commissioners both at and outside NAIC quarterly meetings.

Morrison says that it is “important for insurance commissioners to make sure that they are not overly influenced by the industry.” However, he also noted that commissioners also need to listen to the industry.

He noted the overwhelming majority of attendees at NAIC quarterly meetings are industry people compared with a handful of consumer advocates.

During his tenure as insurance commissioner which started with his election in November 2000, Morrison says that he has “not seen anything at the NAIC in which any commissioner was unduly concerned by a particular interest. I have not seen anything to suggest that anyone is beholding to anyone else.”

Morrison adds that he has abided by Montana law and has not taken contributions from any corporation. He has also not taken any contribution from a political PAC, he adds. However, he says that he may have received contributions from certain agents.

He notes that he will continue to pursue consumer initiatives as well as work for the industry. Morrison notes his efforts to receive federal assistance for insurers in the wake of the events of Sept. 11.

In a preliminary draft letter to the incoming NAIC president, Therese Vaughan, insurers note concerns over plans to disclose individual consumer complaints to the public. It says that although it supports making “complaint ratio” information available, it does not believe customers personal information in complaints should be disclosed.

In interviews with two industry representatives, fear over the possibility of class-action ligitation resulting from the release of these complaints was raised. Concern was also raised about the possibility of differentiating “justified” and “unjustified” complaints.