Website Attacks Consumer Watchdog

By | February 10, 2012

A website attacking a consumer group that often does battle with the insurance industry was launched on Friday, setting off more sparks in a roiling battle between proponents of two competing measures that Californians may see go head-to-head on the November ballot.

Backers of one of the ballot measures, the 2012 Automobile Insurance Discount Act, immediately distanced themselves from the site, which takes on Santa Monica, Calif.-based Consumer Watchdog.

“Our only interest in this is the campaign itself and having people read our initiative and understand what we’re doing,” Terry McHale, spokesman for the 2012 Automobile Insurance Discount Act campaign, said. “It’s between those people. It predates our campaign. We find it a bit absurd that (they) are fighting with each other and we get dragged into the middle of it.”

However, McHale and American Agents Alliance, a backer of the initiative, both took the opportunity to get in a jab at Consumer Watchdog.

“I believe (the site) over Consumer Watchdog,” said McHale, who described Consumer Watchdog’s previous attacks on the industry and backers of the initiative as “rabid.”

The website accuses Consumer Watchdog as being a “pay to play” organization that generates millions of dollars for itself, and contains several income tax documents detailing Consumer Watchdog’s legal fees and contributions made to the group.

“Simply put, is an affront to legitimate consumer organizations,” Steven Maviglio, who launched the site, said in a statement he issued to announce the site’s existence. “It’s a group that is all about its own self-interest and media grandstanding rather than looking out for consumers. Consumers, contributors, and the media deserve to know the organization’s dirty secrets.”

Maviglio, a former chief of staff for former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and a former press secretary for then Gov. Gray Davis, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Among its allegations against the consumer group, the site slams Consumer Watch Dog for: claiming to work for the public interest, but refusing to reveal who its funders are; raking in millions of dollars for itself from a “self-serving intervenor fee provision it inserted into a ballot initiative;” having been fined by California’s Fair Political Practices Commission for illegal actions; being founded by a man who has pocketed millions from the organization and its affiliates, and who lives in a $1.75 million mansion; and being funneled money by special interests.

The Consumer Federation of California put out a statement attacking the site on Friday, blaming Mercury General Corp. Chairman George Joseph and other backers of 2012 Automobile Insurance Discount Act for the site, and defending Consumer Watchdog.

“The latest attack on Consumer Watchdog proves that when you take on powerful corporate interests and beat them, you make enemies,” the group stated. “Consumer Watchdog is a courageous and remarkably successful advocate for consumer rights. An attack dog website was launched today that serves as a preview of the campaign against Consumer Watchdog we anticipate from George Joseph, the billionaire chairman of Mercury Insurance. The site features personal attacks on Consumer Watchdog employees.”

At the heart of the website is an attack on California’s intervenor program, which pays legal fees from Proposition 103 fund for parties who intervene in rate filings. Dating back to the program’s launch in 2003 along with Prop. 103, Consumer Watchdog has been the most commonly listed intervenor, according to the California Department of Insurance.

A major provision of Prop 103 dealt with personal automobile insurance, requiring insurance rates to be determined using the following factors in decreasing order of importance: insured’s driving safety record, number of miles driven annually by the insured, and number of years of driving experience the insured has had.

The proposition also prevented rates from being determined based on a person’s history of insurance.

Both the the 2012 Automobile Insurance Discount Act and Consumer Watchdog’s Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act would expand Prop. 103.

Since 2008, Consumer Watchdog, and its predecessor, Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is the only intervenor listed in rate fillings. Last year, Consumer Watchdog was paid $849,194.28 for intervening. The group was paid nearly as much in 2010, and in 2009 the group was paid nearly $2.5 million for intervening.

The program has been criticized by the insurance industry for years, but the industry has made no headway to get the program changed.

Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, described the program’s faults.

“If intervenors would be beneficial for the public review of insurance rate filings, that would be more defensible,” he said. “However there are deep concerns right now that that’s not what the intervenor program is doing.”

Frazier argued that what intervenors do by sitting in on rate fillings is what the staff of the California Department of Insurance already does. He also said he believes the intervenors’ goal of pushing rate fillings downward in order to get paid rewards the intervenors and punishes insurance companies trying to “responsibly compete” by raising rates.

“At a minimum the system should allow the Department of Insurance to see whether issues are worthy of letting intervenors come in, and intervernors should show why they need to come in,” he said, adding, “If they don’t push the proposed rate downward, they don’t get paid.”

Consumer Watchdog, which has long been characterized by its detractors as a group of “trial lawyers” whose efforts merely justify their own existence, defended itself against the site.

“The insurance industry has been saying this for twenty something years, and it hasn’t been working for them,” Jamie Court, with Consumer Watchdog, said of the “trail lawyer” allegation.

Founder Harvey Rosenfeld is a self-described “public interest” lawyer, who authored Prop. 103 and organized its campaign. Court is an author of several consumer books. There are attorneys, people with political science backgrounds, and journalists on the group’s staff, according to its website.

Court turned his defense of his group into an attack on Maviglio, alleging that the former chief of staff for former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez “was forced to resign in disgrace” because of a Consumer Watchdog investigation. “And now he’s picking up a little business from the insurance industry for a personal vendetta,” Court added.

As for Consumer Watchdog’s intervenor fees, Court defended those, saying, “It’s all money that goes to the consumer group to fund our work. We’ve saved consumers $2 billion by intervening in rate hikes since 2003.”

According to him, the group has taken in about $2.4 million in legal fees for intervening.

“(Maviglio is) accusing us of being successful by stopping insurance companies from raising rates,” Court said, adding that the intervenor program has been “one of the greatest consumer success stories of all time. Prop. 103 has been the greatest regulatory success in America.”

Court dismissed Maviglio’s site as a smear campaign.

“I just don’t think the industry has any response to why we should have insurance regulation,” he said. “The best they can do is throw mud, but its’ not going to do much.”

Instead of defending Consumer Watchdog’s battlefield tactics, which have often turned on Mercury Corp. Chairman George Joseph for his support of past and present ballot measures to get an auto insurance persistency initiative passed, Court defined those tactics in his own terms.

“We don’t throw mud, we throw bombs, and we throw bombs because we’re at war with insurance companies when they try to rip off consumers,” he said.

Joseph is supporting the 2012 Auto Insurance Discount Act, also backed by the American Agents Alliance. The act, which qualified for the Nov. 6 ballot, would allow insureds to take their insurance history to other companies to shop for the best rates. Consumer Watchdog says the measure would punish people who have been uninsured for a period of time.

AAA issued a statement on Friday about the website and Consumer Watchdog, which in part reads:

“The American Agents Alliance, sponsors of the 2012 Automobile Insurance Discount Act, are not surprised, but we are disappointed that Consumer Watchdog has involved us in their spat with Democratic consultant, Steven Maviglio. Evidently, Mr. Maviglio released a website that is critical of Consumer Watchdog’s behavior, and consumer groups in conjunction with Consumer Watchdog have decided to blame our campaign for what is actually a longstanding dispute that has nothing to do with us. However, it is long overdue that greater attention be paid to the questionable activities of Consumer Watchdog.”

Consumer Watchdog, which filed the Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act, is still collecting signatures to qualify it. Consumer Watchdog’s initiative would require health insurance companies to file for rate increases like auto insurers do now.

However, it’s not just about health insurance. Among the proposed act’s 900 words is language that prohibits “unfair pricing” not only for health, but for auto and home insurance based on prior coverage and credit history.

Consumer has also bashed Joseph for spending $8 million on AAA’s 2012 ballot initiative. The proposed initiative is nearly identical to Mercury’s failed 2010 measure, Prop. 17.

In December, Consumer Watchdog filed a formal challenge to Mercury’s rate increase request, claiming that Mercury is attempting to “illegally include campaign expenses for the failed 2010 ballot measure, Prop 17, in its proposed rate hike.” The group noted the 6 percent hike sought by Mercury totals roughly $89 million in increases.

But Mercury says the requested hike was to cover increased expenses, and that political expenses are being passed along not to consumers, but to Mercury shareholders.

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