By Joshua Sharpe, James Salzer
Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck was accused Tuesday by a federal grand jury of stealing more than $2 million from his former employer.
The 38-count indictment charges Beck, an ex-insurance lobbyist and long-time leader of the Georgia Christian Coalition, with fraud and money laundering in an elaborate scheme to defraud the Georgia Underwriting Association. With the stolen cash, the Republican allegedly paid his credit card bills and taxes -- and even funded the 2018 campaign that landed him in office.
Beck's, whose lawyers said he denies the charges, is expected to surrender to U.S. Marshals on Wednesday in downtown Atlanta, said U.S. Attorney Byung J. "BJay" Pak.
Pak said the crimes took place between February 2013 and August 2018, when he left the Georgia Underwriting Association in the middle of the campaign for insurance commissioner. The prosecutor said the allegations don't relate to Beck's current job.
"However," Pak went on, "holding a powerful position does not shield you from the (consequences) of your past criminal activity."
Beck, 57, is being represented by William "Bill" Thomas, a former federal prosecutor, and Douglas Chalmers, who has defended several GOP politicians in ethics cases. "We intend to mount a vigorous defense," Thomas said. "Jim looks forward to continuing his work as Insurance Commissioner protecting Georgia consumers."
At the time of the alleged crimes, Beck was the general manager of operations for Georgia Underwriting Association, a state-created marketplace based in Suwanee that provides high-risk property insurance to Georgia homeowners having trouble obtaining coverage.
He allegedly encouraged friends and associates to start four separate companies and send invoices to the Georgia Underwriting Association for various services. Some of the invoices were for work that was never done, prosecutors believe.
Beck funneled money to himself through two Carrolton-based companies he controlled, the Georgia Christian Coalition and Creative Consultants, the indictment alleges.
It isn't clear if the friends, who are identified in the indictment only by initials, knew the invoices could've been improper. Pak declined to say whether more indictments could come.
Atlanta FBI Special Agent in Charge Chris Hacker said Beck "abused the trust of friends and his employer in an elaborate scheme to enrich himself."
Thomas insisted Beck "acted legally and in good faith" in his position at the Georgia Underwriting Association. "Under his leadership, for the first time in its history, GUA made millions of dollars of profits," Thomas added.
As the state's insurance and fire safety commissioner, Beck regulates insurance companies, oversees the small loan industry and also acts as the state's top fire marshal.
Under state law, if Beck doesn't resign or ask to be suspended, the governor can act after a 14-day waiting period if he determines the charges relate to the performance of his duties as commissioner. The governor would appoint a three-person commission to look into the charges. If they believe the charges relate to his duties, the governor must suspend the official and name a temporary replacement.
Gov. Brian Kemp didn't immediately comment Tuesday on what he'll do.
The Democratic Party of Georgia called on Beck to resign immediately.
"As Insurance Commissioner, he should be protecting the people of Georgia from corruption and fraud, but instead he has shown that he is exactly who they should fear," said Chairwoman Nikema Williams.
Jerome Guiney, chairman of the Georgia Underwriting Association, said the group is a victim and is cooperating fully with the investigation.
Beck, a Carrollton native, began his career in state politics in the mid-1990s as press secretary to then-Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, a Democrat. He served as longtime head of the Georgia Christian Coalition, lobbying the General Assembly on issues including Sunday alcohol sales at grocery and liquor stores, which the coalition opposed.
He also worked on and off for previous insurance commissioners John Oxendine and Ralph Hudgens, serving for a time as the latter's chief of staff.
Beck largely self-bankrolled his GOP primary campaign for insurance commissioner last year, outspending all opposition and winning an overwhelming victory in the May primary. Pak said Beck used "thousands and thousands of dollars" stolen from the Georgia Underwriters Association for the campaign.
Media reports at the time noted that Beck had held full-time state and private-sector jobs at once. He was also dogged by rumors of an imminent indictment.
But after Beck won the primary, Oxendine held a fundraiser for him and people in the insurance industry -- who had backed a GOP opponent -- started writing checks to Beck's campaign. He won a relatively close victory over a Democratic insurance agent in November.
Beck has spent much of his four months in office working to improve consumer transparency, adding features to the agency's web site, including data on complaints filed against insurance companies.
Georgia's last three insurance commissioners:
John Oxendine: From 1995 to 2011. Has been battling ethics complaints since he unsuccessfully sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2010. The complaints stemmed from campaign donations he received from two insurance companies. More recently, in 2017, another ethics complaint was filed alleging that he illegally benefited personally from $237,000 in leftover campaign money his campaign loaned his law firm. Cases are still pending before the state ethics commission.
Ralph Hudgens: 2011-2019. A frequent and vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, he announced he would not seek a third term after the AJC reported he had overspent his agency's budget and had to lay off staffers. The AJC reported in 2015 and again in 2017 that car insurance premiums were rising faster in Georgia than almost anywhere else in the U.S. under Hudgens.
Jim Beck: 2019 -- present. Longtime head of the Georgia Christian Coalition and an insurance executive who worked for former commissioners Oxendine and Hudgens. Charged in a 38-count-indictment alleging he committed fraud through a series of insurance-related schemes.
(c)2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)