Los Angeles Times
Insurer's Antifraud Unit Beset by Suits
Farmers Group Faces Accusations of Improprieties and Bias
By KENNETH REICH
The Farmers Group of insurance companies--convinced, according to its chairman, that
"was immense enough that we should develop our own organization of fraud
investigation"--established a Criminal
The department, directed by a former Los Angeles Police Department narcotics
investigator and staffed by 78
"experts," launched the most intensive antifraud crackdown by any insurance
company in the United States.
By 1984, Farmers' then-president claimed, the department had saved the company $92.2
million and its work had
resulted in the arrest of 1,487 people.
But today, the investigative unit, pared to only a few staff members, is the target of
lawsuits and accusations of
illegalities by private investigators who worked for the unit and of improprieties by
consultants hired by Farmers to
Even before then-Farmers President Joseph E. Metschan extolled the unit's success, the
first of a series of
lawsuits had been filed by private investigators alleging wrongdoing in the unit. Its name
had already been toned
down to "Investigation Department."
Since 1984, the company-ordered inquiry has charged the Investigation Department with
"serious improprieties." Los
Angeles-based Farmers, the second-largest auto insurance seller in California and third
largest in the nation, has
also suffered a judgment for $500,000 in one lawsuit and what is reported to be a costly
settlement in another. According to two attorneys suing the company, the department has
only three or four staff members left. The former Los Angeles police officer who directed
the unit, Michael D. Conn of Hacienda Heights, quit in February, 1985, and, claiming that
he was forced out, is suing Farmers for wrongful termination, breach of good faith and
fair dealing, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A class-action suit, filed by the Western regional counsel for the National Assn. for the
Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP), charges that the unit compiled a list of 1,600 policyholders it believed
to be Africans or American
blacks and turned it over to the California Highway Patrol and other law enforcement
agencies as possible
perpetrators of insurance fraud when the great majority of them had never even made a
The company itself will not comment in detail on the controversy. Farmers spokesman Jerry
Clemans said last week
that he "went to great length" to discuss with the firm's legal department a
Times' request for a response from
Farmers. But, he said, "For a variety of reasons, they decided they didn't want to
get into a commentary at this time.
There are a lot of strange aspects in this thing, and it is not being construed as being
helpful from our legal
standpoint to comment."
Asked later for a specific response to accusations against the company by Conn and by
NAACP counsel Nathaniel
Colley Sr. of Sacramento, Clemans, after consultations, read a statement he said had been
drafted by the
company's legal department: "Farmers is presently engaged in litigation in which
numerous and often contradictory allegations have been made by the plaintiffs. It is our
practice not to comment upon matters which are related to court proceedings. We have
requested that these cases be submitted to juries so that all the facts and evidence can
be viewed impartially. We are confident the lawsuits will be concluded in our favor."
The company has tried hard to keep details of the lawsuits involving its Investigation
Department private, seeking to
have papers in the suits sealed and declining public comment even in the lawsuit resolved
against it. Many people in
the industry are unaware of the controversy. Officials of the California Department of
Insurance said they were
unacquainted with the matter.
Moving Toward Climax
But, behind the scenes, the dispute is moving toward a climax. Conn's suit, now pending
in Los Angeles Superior Court, charges that he was forced to resign after "various
audits and investigations" had been undertaken against him by the company and
"numerous requests of personnel of defendant Farmers Insurance Group to commit
improper and possibly illegal activities, including the commission of perjury."
Conn, who served nine years on the Los Angeles police force before being hired by Farmers
in 1980, asked for $23
million in damages-$It million from Farmers and $12 million from the Florida consultants
hired by the company to
investigate him and his unit.
In a telephone interview last week, Conn said Farmers executives at first were grateful
for the money his investigative
unit had saved the company and had given him their full backing. But he said their
attitude changed after, under the personal instructions of Board Chairman Richard G.
Lindsley, he and his aides began an intensive investigation of alleged internal
irregularities in the company's operations.
"We came up with some facts they didn't want to face," Conn said. "Since
then, Farmers has tapped my phone, put
me under surveillance, spent about $500,000 investigating me and come up with
nothing." Farmers spokesman
Clemans would not respond to Conn's specific allegations, citing the pending litigation.
A "confidential report" prepared by a Miami-based firm of private investigators,
National Research Systems Inc., and
submitted to Farmers' vice president and general counsel Jason L. Katz in May, 1985,
concluded that there had
been "serious problems and improprieties" in Conn's unit. The report has been
filed as an exhibit in lawsuits against the company. It was provided to The Times by Peter
J. Diamond, a Coos Bay, Ore., private investigator who is suing Farmers for breach of
contract and who has collected documents in cases against the firm.
In a summary, National Research Systems said its review "disclosed . . . (1)
Misrepresentation of facts to senior
management (2) Internal corruption (3) Improper expenditures (4) Conversion of company
assets for personal benefit
(5) Unethical disposition of records (6) A lack of professionalism (7) Absence of
guidelines for case referral and
investigation (8) Insufficient training and a lack of expertise, leading to great legal
exposure (9) Inadequate
procedures (10) Abuse of checks and balances."
Among the instances cited of what the report calls "wrongdoing" were staff
meetings at which "liquor was available
and was consumed to excess" and 11 entertainment was provided in the form of
pornographic films," the attendance
by Conn and an aide at a three-month 11 wiretap school" when "there is no
conceivable reason why Farmers'
personnel should have received this kind of training" and the securing of three
concealed weapons permits for
investigative unit use from "the chief of police of a four man police department
located 762 miles from Los Angeles."
The town was not named.
In addition, the report cited a $40,000 investigation by Conn's unit in Las Vegas.
Although it said the operation
apparently had to do with identifying people involved in auto theft rings and insurance
adjusters, including Farmers
adjusters, taking kickbacks, the consultants added that the file they had examined
relating to it "was devoid of
investigative reports or memoranda explaining the nature of the operation, why it was
initiated and what conclusions
"This is a glaring example of a department running amok," the report said.
"What actually occurred in (the operation) may never be known. If nothing else, this
example demonstrates the total disarray and insufficiency of the Investigative
Department's records and the total lack of accountability that exists in this
Report Looks Ahead
The report said the investigation unit "actually functioned as an adjunct to law
enforcement agencies." Farmers, it
said, "should continue to cooperate with law enforcement, but not to the extent that
it does law enforcement's job
and assumes the expenses."
(Many major insurance companies participate in a joint industry anti-fraud effort, the
Insurance Crime Prevention
Institute, a course which Farmers specifically rejected.)
Conn's lawsuit, which names National Research Systems and its president, Nathan
Horowitz, as defendants along
with Farmers, charges that the report "is false" and "libelous on its
face." It says, in customary legal language, that
it "clearly exposes (Conn) to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy."
Among the suits filed against Farmers, and some against Conn as well while he was still
head of the investigative
unit, are several by private investigators in Oregon, Arizona, Texas and Northern
California who claim that they had
been dismissed by either Conn or other Farmers officials, in breach of oral contracts,
after they had refused to go
along with orders from Farmers officials that they commit illegal acts.
For instance, Petaluma insurance adjuster Ronald Blanquie and his firm, Insurance
Consulting Associates, claimed
in a 1981 lawsuit that he was cut off front working with the Criminal Investigation
Department after he refused to
participate in what lie considered illegal intelligence gathering.
The project that Blanquie refused to join was what the Investigation Department called
its "Ebony file" of suspected
potential fraud perpetrators. In trial testimony and depositions in his suit, Blanquie
said that after the company was informed by law enforcement that a ring of people with
Nigerian names had organized a fraud ring, the company's investigators went through the
files of policyholders and came up with a list of 1,600 names of people who might be
members of such a ring. He said it not only included Nigerian names, but also such names
as Washington and Jefferson that are sometimes associated with blacks. He said the list
was then distributed by company officials to law enforcement agencies at a meeting at the
California Highway Patrol office in Hayward in February, 1981. It is not known what the
agencies did with the information.
A $500,000 judgment was rendered against Farmers in the Blanquie case by a Marin County
jury in 1984. Farmers
declined to comment on the case even after the verdict was returned. But two attorneys
representing plaintiffs in
pending cases, David Markowitz, of Portland, Ore., and Daniel Street of San Jose, both
said the judgment has been
paid. Clemans declined to comment on the so-called "Ebony file" and Conn said
his attorney had advised him not to
discuss such specific cases.
Racial Bias Charged
The suit by NAACP attorney Colley alleges that, in undertaking to compile and distribute
the list, Farmers "was at
all times motivated by racial prejudice" and "knew that (it) was violating the
rights of each and all plaintiffs." Those
who compiled the list unwittingly listed some people who turned out to be white, according
to the suit. The suit asks
$50 million in damages.
A former Farmers' investigator, Charles R. Viorel of Sacramento, sued Farmers for $20
million and later agreed to an
undisclosed settlement that sources said was large. Viorel himself could not be reached
for comment. Viorel's suit claimed that Farmers, Conn and others involved in the
investigative unit had required that he "participate in development of policies and
procedures in violation of California and federal law," and that he had been
threatened with death "if he did any act which would interfere with (the)
In depositions taken before the case was settled, Viorel alleged that he had been asked
to commit illegal break-ins
against suspected fraud perpetrators; that Farmers kept a double set of investigative
files on insurance cases; that when courts ordered it to produce files on a specific case,
it would produce only the more innocuous set, and that Conn had kept dossiers on top
Farmers insurance executives to have something to hold over them if they objected to what
his unit was doing.
Conn, however, said in the interview last week that the only dossiers he kept related
to possible internal fraud by
Farmers officials. He cited his transcript of a lengthy conversation that he had secretly
taped with Viorel in February,
1981, as proof that he had never countenanced illegal acts.
In the transcript, filed along with a Conn deposition in the Viorel suit, Conn praises
another investigator for his
unwillingness to commit illegal acts. The transcript also contains indications that the
real reason Viorel may have
been disenchanted with Conn was that he had not been hired in Conn's place. However,
according to papers Viorel's attorney filed with the court, Viorel had also warned Conn in
a memo in February, 1981, that compilation of the "Ebony file," the list of
suspected fraud perpetrators, could expose Farmers to "a massive class (action)
"It seems to me that the material ... in and of itself creates a class which
contains some 1,600 Farmers insurers,"
Viorel's memo said. "It is obvious that publishing a written document including the
names of Farmers insurers for
purposes other than intra-departmental use creates an exposure to civil liability based
on: (1) defamation (either libel
or slander) (2) invasion of privacy (3) potential for a civil rights action either based
on state or federal statute
regarding discrimination . . .
Several other lawsuits seeking large damages have been filed by private investigators
who claim they were wrongfully
dismissed from working for the Farmers' investigative unit. These are still pending.
Although Farmers has not commented on the suits in detail, Board Chairman Lindsley
testified about the case in depositions in the Insurance Consulting Associates case in
At one point in a deposition, he said, "I know of no written direction or verbal
direction, oral direction for that matter,
that would proscribe illegal activities on the part of either Farmers people or anyone
representing Farmers people."
However, a moment later, he commented, "In my view, in my corporate capacity, there
is no way that Farmers'
board of directors, top management, would condone unlawful activity on the part of anyone
connected with the
Times Staff Writer
Photo: Nathaniel Colley Se.
Photographer: Associated Press
Photo: Richard G. Lindsley