Gregory E. Lindberg, a North Carolina insurance magnate and self-described billionaire, was convicted this morning on political corruption charges after a federal jury determined he had attempted to bribe the state’s Insurance Commissioner, Republican Mike Causey. Lindberg had pledged to contribute $2 million to assist with Causey’s 2020 reelection campaign in exchange for the replacement of a top state regulator overseeing several of Lindberg’s life insurance businesses. Causey, however, had approached the federal government with concerns about Lindberg’s unusual business practices and subsequently agreed to become an informant, secretly recording numerous phone calls and meetings.
The investigation also ensnared state GOP Chair Robin Hayes, who previously pleaded guilty to lying about transferring $250,000 in Lindberg donations to help Causey’s campaign, as well as John Gray, a consultant who was convicted alongside the insurance tycoon. A third associate, John Palermo, was acquitted.
In his home state of North Carolina, Lindberg had been considered one of the most powerful Republican mega-donors. The government’s case against him created a media sensation, and his trial was closely-watched and widely-reported. But North Carolina was not the only place Lindberg had exerted political influence.
Last year, the Bayou Brief reported that Lindberg had donated $20,000 to the campaign of Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.
We have since uncovered an additional $5,000 Donelon received on December 11, 2017 from the convicted felon through Acquired Development LLC, a company registered to Lindberg’s estate in the Florida Keys (currently on the market for $4.95 million). The very next day, Donelon received another $5,000 from Erie Properties LLC, which shares the same Wyoming-based registering agent as a different company also named Acquired Development LLC.
All told, Donelon has received at least $25,000 from Lindberg, making him one of the Louisiana Insurance Commissioner’s largest contributors. The North Carolina case did not involve Lindberg’s activities in Louisiana, though his “unorthodox” way of doing business had raised red flags well before Donelon accepted campaign money.
Following the Bayou Brief’s reporting, Donelon’s opponent, Tim Temple, called on the commissioner to return the donations, a request Donelon ignored and has still not addressed, according to campaign finance records.
While Lindberg’s requests for favorable regulatory treatment in North Carolina were denied, he had earned a seal of approval in Louisiana. As we previously reported, in 2016, Donelon approved the sale of two insolvent Louisiana life insurance companies, Mothe Life and DLE Life, to Southland National Insurance Company, which was controlled by Lindberg.
Donelon selected Southland from nine companies that had submitted letters of intent to bid on the insolvent companies, according to a transcript of the court hearing that approved the sale.
Those companies were purchased by Lindberg for $100,000, which make his oversized donations to Donelon particularly notable.
“Commissioner Donelon has accepted a lot of money from a man just convicted of trying to bribe another state’s Insurance Commissioner,” said Doug Heller, an insurance expert for Consumer Federation of America. “Not only should Commissioner Donelon turn over all the money from Lindberg and his web of companies, he should also detail all communications with Lindberg and his role in approving the sale of two Louisiana life insurance companies to Lindberg before receiving the campaign contributions. Louisiana consumers have a right to know.”
Reporting by Politico in October 2018 found that only days after Donelon issued the final approval of the sale of Mothe/DLE to Southland, the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation sought to stop Southland from doing business in that state because the company was “financially impaired.” That Florida order was issued on April 1, 2016, just two weeks after Donelon’s Department handed over Mothe/DLE to Southland.
Notably, although Donelon accepted the contributions after already approving the sale of the companies to Lindberg, the Louisiana Commissioner’s endorsement of his business practices, which had raised the concerns of regulators and investigative reporters across the nation, was likely considered very valuable. Indeed, according to government prosecutors, Lindberg’s motive for attempting to bribe North Carolina’s top insurance official had not been related to the approval of any acquisition; rather, it was an effort to receive a “clean bill of health” from regulators, which presumably would provide financial institutions with added confidence in Lindberg’s businesses at a time in which they were under significant scrutiny.
Jim Donelon was reelected to a fourth term in office last year and will soon become the longest-serving insurance commissioner in state history. His campaign was primarily funded by insurance companies, agents, and brokers, who showered the industry’s chief regulator with more than $1 million in contributions. He is currently championing a “tort reform” bill that would likely provide auto insurers with a massive windfall by completely eliminating the state’s collateral source rule. Prior to becoming Insurance Commissioner, Donelon, as a member of the state legislature, had promoted a similar effort, though he cautioned that it would only shift the costs of auto insurance to health insurance. The current effort, while calling itself a “premium reduction” proposal, does not mandate any rate decreases and does not impose any substantive regulations on insurers. Louisiana has remained one of the most expensive states for car insurance for more than 30 years.
Three of Donelon’s four predecessors eventually served time in prison after being convicted on corruption-related charges.