Sen. Mike Fasano, the most outspoken legislator when it comes to property insurance issues, is calling on the Florida Cabinet to hold a hearing into the “lavish” spending by Citizens Property Insurance executives.
On Sunday, the Herald/Times reported on the growing travel and meals expenses by Citizens executives, who regularly stay in five-star hotels across the globe while publicly complaining that company finances are in trouble, and asking for rate increases.
On Friday, Fasano sent letters to Cabinet members—Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam—asking them to call the high-spending execs to the carpet for their expenditures.
“Citizens’ top executives and board members have been shameless in the way they lavishly spend tax dollars on travel and related expenses,” Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said in a statement. “While crying poor mouth they stay in posh hotels, eat expensive meals, and engage in international travel. While so many of their customers are struggling to cut their personal budgets so they can pay their ever increasing premiums, Citizens’ higher-ups are living high on the hog on the public dime.”
Fasano signed each of the letters personally, writing “Something must be done!”
The Herald/Times report found that Citizens’ Chief Financial Officer—responsible for drafting an annual budget that doubled travel expenditures—was one of the main executives racking up five-star charges on the company credit card.
CFO Sharon Binnun spent more than $600 a night for hotel rooms, bought a $260 bottle of wine with her company card and spent $265 for two visits to a Tallahassee hair salon.
During international trips that took her to six countries, she stayed at the $549-a-night New York “Palace,” and the $633 “gold room” at the Fairmont Hamilton “Princess” in Bermuda.
Citizens has defended its high travel expenses as a good investment for policyholders, but has not publicly had to answer questions from lawmakers. A 2006 audit of the state-run insurer’s books questioned why Citizens was allowed to ignore spending caps placed on other state agencies.
Last November, the Cabinet grilled former Citizens president Scott Wallace over the rapid growth of Citizens, and the potential risk it could cause the state if a once-in-a-century hurricane hit.
Scott warned Wallace that the current state of the company was unacceptable and he expected him to solve the problem quickly, without involving the Legislature.
Wallace resigned within weeks and was replaced by Scott’s neighbor and political ally, Tom Grady. In his first three months on the job, Grady spent $13,000 on travel, including a $2,000+ first-class ticket to Bermuda. He also hired his “special assistant” to a $50,000 a year job, even though Citizens already had an “executive assistant” making $67,500. He was ousted from the job in June and replaced by Barry Gilway.
Gilway said he would take a closer look at company expenses but called the recent travel costs “absolutely” defendable, saying that the trips saved the company a lot of money.
Gilway sent letters to Scott and other Cabinet members on Friday, saying that he would be looking more closely at company spending and welcomed the opportunity to present new proposals at the next Cabinet meeting.
A spokesperson for Putnam said the Agriculture Commissioner had not yet seen Fasano's letter, but that he "welcomes the opportunity for there to be further discussion by the Cabinet about Citizens' business plan and expenditures of tax payer dollars."
A spokesperson for Atwater said the CFO expected Citizens to address its travel spending policies at the next board meeting on Sept. 7.
Other members of the Cabinet did not immediately respond to requests for comments about whether they would hold a hearing on Citizens’ executive spending. The next Cabinet meeting is September 18.