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Quackenbush the Sequel

February 21, 2001

The more we learn about the outrageous behavior of Chuck Quackenbush, the more it appears he saw the state Department of Insurance as his personal fiefdom rather than an instrument of public trust. At times, it seemed the state insurance commissioner's office was more an arm of the insurance industry than protector of California policyholders. Since he quit last summer, one step ahead of impeachment proceedings stemming from the private foundations he had set up to take industry "donations," the FBI and state prosecutors have been investigating.

The Times' Virginia Ellis now reports that Quackenbush took luxury-class trips to Amsterdam, London and Beijing, financed by insurance firms with business pending before his office. There's nothing illegal about that, it turns out--a glaring legal loophole that needs to be corrected immediately. Current law requires only that any such gifts be reported in detail to the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Quackenbush may have failed to do even that. The state attorney general is adding this to his list of potential targets in investigating the disgraced official's six years in elected office.

It gets worse, of course. Traveling with Quackenbush was a lawyer for the insurance firms that picked up his tab. After the trips, Quackenbush took action that appeared to benefit some of the lawyer's clients. And now Ellis reports that the Department of Insurance obscured a questionable $400,000 payment from insurance giant Lloyd's of London after Quackenbush took Lloyd's side in a securities fraud lawsuit brought by another state agency. As a result, Lloyd's retained its lucrative right to do business in California.

Quackenbush is gone from office--good riddance--and living in obscurity in Hawaii. His appointed successor, Harry Low, had the good sense to administratively ban the acceptance of gifts and trips. But the Legislature needs to protect the public by writing this prohibition into state law. At the same time, the investigations by the state attorney general and the FBI should be pursued with vigor. Quackenbush should be California's poster boy for full disclosure in government.

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