ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s top insurance regulator and two senior staffers accepted $100-per-head meals and, in one case, a round of golf last month funded by the industry they oversee, according to recent financial disclosures.
That spending is legal under Georgia law, though Gov. Nathan Deal and other elected leaders forbid or discourage it elsewhere in state government. The sums spent on Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens and his staff represent larger-than-average lobbyist spending on executive officials. While lobbyists frequently splurge on those elected to office, it is less common for them to pick up the tab for staff regulators who set and enforce rules. One of the entertainment expenditures would be illegal when a new lobbying law takes effect next year.
The case was also notable because a lobbyist twice paid for pricey dinners for a regulator’s family.
Aubie Knight, CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents of Georgia, said there is nothing wrong with hosting Hudgens and his staff to a June convention and trade show at a resort on Amelia Island in Florida, northeast of Jacksonville on the Atlantic Coast. Hudgens and his staff have attended since he took office in 2011 and pay for their own travel and lodging.
Knight said the event allows regulators and insurance agents to discuss industry topics.
“I don’t have a problem with that, nor does the organization have it,” Knight said in an interview. “I can understand the optics of it, how it could look bad to outsiders. I can understand how some people could look at that and say, ‘Huh, what’s going on here?’”
Hudgens said it was not a conflict of interest to accept meals or gifts from people his office regulates. After being questioned about the spending, Hudgens said his staff will pay for their own entertainment at future gatherings and begin following a new law limiting lobbyist spending before it legally takes effect in January.
“I was in the Legislature 14 years,” said Hudgens, a Republican. “I never felt my vote was for sale, and I don’t think someone taking me out to dinner ever influenced my vote, yea or nay. And I brought that same feeling into the position as insurance commissioner.”
His office makes decisions that have financial consequences for the insurance industry. It approves price hikes sought by insurance firms, licenses insurance companies and agents and investigates consumer complaints.
A lobbyist for the insurance agents, Gould Hagler, reported spending more than $350 to buy meals for Hudgens and his wife over two days.