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Despite self-imposed bans, insurance donations slip into campaigns

vimeo.comMike Villines speaks at a budget press conference in 2008.

With the next California insurance commissioner expected to play a significant role in the way national health care reform is implemented in the state, the insurance industry is watching the race between Democrat Dave Jones and Republican Mike Villines closely.

According to filings with the Secretary of State, a political action committee with hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance contributions spent $280,334 this week in a campaign effort opposing Jones, D-Sacramento.

Jones supports the national health care plan and has said he would work to comply with its requirements at the state level. The committee, JobsPAC, is managed by the California Chamber of Commerce. Last week, it obtained $90,000 from Progressive Corp. and $225,000 from Mercury Insurance Group chairman George Joseph, records show.

Although GOP candidate Villines, R-Fresno, now rejects money from insurance companies, he transferred more than $50,000 in insurance contributions from a now-closed account called “Villines for Senate 2014” into his insurance commissioner fund.

Asked about the insurance funds in two recent radio interviews, Villines said he has not accepted any insurance contributions since announcing he would run for commissioner.

“When I announced for insurance commissioner over a year ago back in June, I guess of last year, I’ve not accepted any insurance dollars,” he told KPCC two weeks ago. “Anything that even randomly comes in sometimes – you know, friends, agents and others – those checks are returned.”

But records show that Villines, who has criticized the national health care plan and says a “vibrant, competitive private market is essential” for the insurance industry, accepted $2,500 from the Cooperative of American Physicians PAC earlier this year. The group is licensed through the California Department of Insurance, records show. According to its website, it sells medical professional liability insurance as its “core product.”

Villines spokeswoman Jennifer Gibbons said the campaign believed the physicians committee to be a medical group, not insurance, but would look into whether the donation should be returned.

“If they are an insurer, then the money will be returned,” she said.

According to Secretary of State filings, Villines accepted $2,250 from insurance companies into the Villines for Senate 2014 account in the months after announcing his bid for insurance commissioner. Aetna Inc. wrote a check for $1,500 on June 11, 2009.

The Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies PAC gave $750 on July 6, 2009. Both donations were returned more than a year later, Gibbons said, after the Senate account was closed.

“Once they caught it, both were refunded,” she said.

Gibbons said the campaign kept all funds raised before Villines announced his candidacy, including the roughly $17,000 donated by insurance companies in the weeks before Villines said he would run.

While Jones has hammered his opponent for using insurance dollars to fund his bid for an office tasked with regulating the industry, records show Jones accepted a $1,000 contribution from the California Association of Dental Plans PAC last August.

According to its website, the association represents dental insurance providers in California and exists to “promote the mutual interests of the industry.” According to Secretary of State filings, the PAC is funded almost entirely by insurance companies, including Aetna, Health Net and MetLife.

Jones spokeswoman Sandra Sanchez said the campaign screens contributions for licensed insurance companies and brokers but would not automatically reject money from a group representing those providers or a PAC funded by insurance money.

“It’s very, very difficult to track every single organization to find out what money they accept and what they don’t,” Sanchez said.

Beyond insurance money, campaign finance records show Villines benefiting from private business, especially oil companies and developers, while labor groups and the legal industry are giving generously to his Democratic opponent.

Big oil – Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Valero, ExxonMobil and others – have poured more than $32,000 into the campaign for Villines. Breweries, wineries and their distributors have also given $16,000 ($43,750, if you count donations transferred from the Senate fund).

Pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Allergan have donated about $12,500. (Combined with prior donations from the Senate account, that's roughly $38,000.) Executives with the Fresno-based developer McCaffrey Group are among the biggest spenders, totaling more than $75,000 in contributions, records show.

Predictably, Jones, a trial lawyer, is getting plenty of cash from the legal industry. Lawyers, law firms and various legal associations have put about a quarter million dollars toward Jones’ bid for insurance commissioner, records show. Organized labor has been even more generous. Counting money transferred from his prior Assembly re-election fund, labor funds total nearly $1 million.

Jones is also benefiting from health care industry money. Records show the Democratic candidate’s insurance commissioner account has received more than $200,000 from health care professionals, hospital executives, medical associations, hospitals and various medical-related political committees.

Those groups also gave generously to Villines' Senate fund, records show. While Villines is using tens of thousands of those health care dollars for this race, fewer medical associations have given directly to his insurance commissioner campaign, according to Secretary of State filings.

Villines is trailing Jones significantly in fundraising but outspent the Democratic candidate during the most recent reporting period, between July 1, 2010 and Sept. 30, 2010. Villines raised $213,275 compared with Jones’ $1.1 million, records show, and spent more than $300,000 compared with Jones’ roughly $200,000. Jones ended the month with more cash in the bank – the Democratic candidate has roughly $1 million on hand compared to Villines, who ended up with about $150,000.



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