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So Much for the 'Witch Hunt'

June 26, 2000

The mystery is over. It turns out that the documents that triggered an investigation of state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush were leaked by a veteran lawyer for the Department of Insurance, hired by one of Quackenbush's Republican predecessors. The purloined papers didn't come from some Democratic spy as part of a "political witch hunt," as Quackenbush insists. Instead the information on claims from the 1994 Northridge earthquake was provided by a dedicated department employee who agonized over what to do when she saw that "something was wrong."

Cindy Ossias, a lawyer in the department's San Francisco office, decided to get the evidence into public hands. She did the right thing, but now Quackenbush has placed her on administrative leave; she faces "appropriate action, including dismissal."

What Ossias deserves is the thanks of Californians. The Legislature should ensure that she is not unfairly punished for an act of conscience.

The reports detailed how insurance companies mishandled disputed damage claims and gave evidence of the bad judgment that Quackenbush showed in allowing the firms to donate $12.8 million to private foundations in lieu of fines of up to $3 billion.

Ossias gave the papers to legislative committees. Now, the legislators are doing what any responsible officials should do when presented with evidence of possible wrongdoing by a public officeholder. They are investigating.

If Quackenbush still wants to call this a political witch hunt, he has a chance to do so Thursday when he is supposed to make another appearance before the Assembly Insurance Committee. Testifying today will be witnesses who have tended to contradict Quackenbush's statements concerning the foundations.

The commissioner's office did all it could to keep the contested claims documents from becoming public, and no wonder. They illustrate just how badly California policyholders have been served by their state Department of Insurance.

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