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Poizner's choice of advisor criticized

Consumer advocates are wary of the insurance regulator's new aide, an ex-industry lobbyist.

February 14, 2007|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Consumer advocates who endorsed Steve Poizner for state insurance commissioner last fall are fuming about his first major policy advisor: a former insurance industry lobbyist.

Poizner, a Republican who said during his campaign that he would make consumer protection his top priority, named William L. Gausewitz as counsel to the insurance commissioner, specializing in writing laws and regulations. Gausewitz starts next week at the Department of Insurance.

Poizner said he valued Gausewitz's insurance expertise and asked consumer groups to be patient while he assembled his entire leadership team. But consumer advocates worry that the selection may signal a tilt by the department in favor of the business it regulates.

"He is the industry's inside guy in an agency Poizner said would be accountable and controlled only by the people. On its face, it's improper," said Harvey Rosenfield, author of the landmark Proposition 103 initiative approved by California voters in 1988 that made insurance a highly regulated industry.

Rosenfield, who endorsed Poizner in his race against Democrat Cruz Bustamante, said he was taken aback by the news. "I didn't think we'd see this kind of move," he said.

Gausewitz, 52, currently works in the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He spent a dozen years since 1990 lobbying the Department of Insurance and the Legislature, most recently for the American Insurance Assn. and earlier for Farmers Insurance Group.

In an interview Tuesday, Poizner said he was counting on Gausewitz to "help me understand the industry's point of view." The insurance commissioner said he needed often-technical information to "make sure that consumers are protected and insurance companies fulfill all their responsibilities to policyholders and that insurance prices come down."

Gausewitz said he had severed his ties to insurers and would use his expertise to give Poizner balanced analyses of all sides of insurance issues.

"I'll suggest options and what I think will be the outcomes of various policy choices, but it will be up to the commissioner to make the choices," he said.

Gausewitz said he left the American Insurance Assn. in 2004 and since then had not "worked to advance the insurance industry's interests at all."

He said he had to be impartial in his current job as head of the California Office of Administrative Law, which reviews proposed government regulations to ensure that they are legally sound. He noted that while there he had approved rules that insurance companies opposed.

Gausewitz said he expected to maintain "the same degree of independence from the insurance industry" in his new position with Poizner and hoped to prove his critics wrong in assuming that he automatically would favor insurance companies in his advice to Poizner.

But Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based consumer group, was skeptical.

"This confirms the concern I had all along that Poizner is more friendly to the industry than he would like the consumer advocates to think," she said.

Gausewitz's appointment won praise from colleagues who worked with him both inside and outside of the insurance business. "He is meticulously straightforward and honest," said Ken Gibson, Gausewitz's former boss at the American Insurance Assn.

Poizner did not elaborate on his future staffing plans. But his election campaign chairman, former state Senate Republican Leader James Brulte of San Bernardino, had more to say.

Gausewitz is part of Poizner's effort to hire a bipartisan team of aides from a variety of backgrounds, Brulte said. The former lawmaker said he recruited Poizner to run for insurance commissioner and helped him select several staff members. Brulte said he was not directly involved in hiring Gausewitz.

Brulte is a partner in California Strategies, a high-powered consulting group in Sacramento that counsels clients on how to do business with "public institutions and organizations that govern our state." Brulte said he was not required to register as a lobbyist with the secretary of State.

Poizner said he got "feedback" from Brulte and other supporters about Gausewitz and other hires, but added, "I don't discuss insurance policy matters with my political team."

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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