Every "gate" participant since that time who has been caught up in any mess, but ultimately exonerated, has faced the same situation. The charge comes in a blaring headline, while the correction goes, as President Nixon used to say, "somewhere back with the corset ads."
Whether agents and brokers have a right to feel that way is open to debate. But some of their leaders have not been shy about crowing over recent events that underscore their notion that contingent commissions should not be mentioned in the same breath with bid-rigging, or even child molestation for that matter.
Wes Bissett has been working double duty in his role as senior vice president of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, protecting the reputation of the great majority of producers.
"The Wall Street Journal and everybody else has been doing these articles three years ago, and now that the industry has been vindicated, and all these cases have been tossed out, there has not been so many headlines," he said.
Bissett noted that the recent New York Appellate Court decision involving the New York brokerage firm DeWitt Stern Group Inc. stressed the fact that producers have no fiduciary obligation to disclose to their customer that they receive compensation from the insurer in either its sum or nature.
"It is a bittersweet vindication," Bissett said. "After all, our guys (smaller so-called Main Street producers) were caught up in this, and their reputations were hurt." More vindication came from a federal judge in Trenton late September, dismissing racketeering charges against several dozen insurers and brokers.
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's election to governor may not seem to be too much of a comeuppance, but at least he has been replaced with an equally ambitious pol whose scrutiny has been leveled on the college loan industry (and Spitzer himself) and not insurers.
Nonetheless, those in New York watching Spitzer in the unfamiliar position of squirming after being just a little too vigilant in keeping tabs on Republican foes may take some pleasure in the vein of"what goes around comes around."
And then there is the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, who got into the act in late 2004 with a disclosure model vociferously debated, but which failed to gain adoption in any state in part for the broad brush it seemed to paint on all producers.
Just how raw feelings remain could be seen from the reaction to a casual remark from Maine regulator Robert Wake at a National Conference of Insurance Legislators forum earlier this year, when he seemed to dismiss the notion that independent agents suffered any serious loss of reputation resulting from the proposed extensive and ultimately doomed disclosure regulations.
Kenneth Auerbach, vice president of the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, agreed that the reputations of Main Street agents are indeed intact.
"But no thanks to the NAIC officials who were members of the Brokers Activities Task Force, and who signed off on the settlements in question during secret, closed-door meetings from which the public was excluded," he said.
STEVE TUCKEY lives in New Jersey.
December 1, 2007
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