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Davis Nominates Retired Judge to Fill Insurance Post

Capitol: Praised for 'integrity and credibility,' Harry Low says a top priority will be a review of quake claims.

August 01, 2000|VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis on Monday nominated retired judge Harry Low to be the state's next insurance commissioner, and announced that Low's first priority will be to review Northridge earthquake claims.

Davis said he picked the 69-year-old jurist to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Chuck Quackenbush because he believes Low will restore credibility to an agency tarnished by scandal.

He said he chose the new commissioner from the ranks of the judiciary rather than from the political arena in the hope that he would not be tempted, as Quackenbush was, to put politics ahead of "the people we serve."

"I believe at the end of the day if anyone on the planet can restore integrity and credibility to the . . . Department of Insurance," Davis said, "that person is Justice Harry Low."

Low, who retired eight years ago after a 26-year judicial career, said he gave the governor a commitment that one of his first acts will be to examine how some claims were handled after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

But he said it is too soon to decide whether he will set aside settlements Quackenbush reached with insurance companies and order a full-scale investigation of Northridge claims-handling practices.

"It is an open issue as far as I am concerned," he said, adding that he is "both sorry and somewhat embarrassed that this is a problem for the Insurance Department."

Quackenbush, the state's second elected insurance commissioner, was forced to resign after revelations that he had reached secret settlements with insurance companies accused of mishandling Northridge claims. The agreements required the companies to make contributions to nonprofit foundations that Quackenbush created, in return for a pledge from the commissioner not to pursue an investigation.

Court documents filed by state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer showed that foundation funds were used primarily to improve Quackenbush's political image, financing political polling and television spots that featured him.

Low, a Democrat who plans to take office in mid-September, said he has not ruled out the possibility of running for insurance commissioner when his term expires in two years, but that he will not accept campaign contributions while he holds the post.

Typically, a run for statewide office costs millions of dollars.

"I will say right now, no, I don't want any [campaign contributions]," he said. "I have great trouble raising money and I don't like to do it."

Davis said he expects Low's appointment to win quick approval in the Legislature. It requires confirmation by a majority in the Senate and Assembly.

Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) described Low as an "excellent choice" and said he will urge his colleagues to endorse the appointment.

"I know Judge Low as a person of unquestioned honesty and intelligence, and he is exactly what we need for the position," Hertzberg said.

Senate Insurance Committee Chairwoman Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said she too will push for his confirmation, adding: "Justice Low's reputation is sterling. California consumers can take solace in knowing that there will be someone at the helm who will be judicious in regulating the insurance industry and protecting the consumers of our state."

Among consumer advocates, the appointment received a mixed reaction.

Harvey Rosenfield, author of the 1988 ballot initiative that made the commissioner's job an elective post, said that although Low is a man of the "utmost integrity," he worries that Low will not be an aggressive advocate for consumers.

Since leaving the judiciary, he said, Low had served as an arbitrator, often in disputes involving insurance companies. He said the records of private arbitration are secret and "the public has no way to gauge his willingness to stand up to insurance companies and other large corporations."

Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, an insurance consumer education organization, said she has been involved in cases in which Low was the arbitrator. She said he displayed a willingness to see the policyholder's side and to tell insurance companies when they had made mistakes.

"He is a very low-key guy," she said. "I think he is very good listener. I don't consider him an activist in any way, shape or form. I think he's going to be cautious."

Acting Insurance Commissioner Clark Kelso said he worked with Low when Low was a justice on the California Court of Appeal in San Francisco and knew him as a man of "impeccable integrity and thoughtful judgment."

Low was appointed to judicial posts by former Democratic Govs. Pat and Jerry Brown and former Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan.

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