WASHINGTON — Democrats hit hard in their first TV ad of the general election, one targeted to a South Jersey district now represented by U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.).
According to Tom MacArthur, the Republican who is running to replace Runyan, Democrats also hit low — and dirty.
The ad, from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is backing Belgard, began running on cable TV in the district Tuesday. (It can be seen below).
Here, we examine the claims and arguments on both sides. The analysis relies on Inquirer reporting from the primary and since the ad began running, interviews with MacArthur and his Democratic opponent, Aimee Belgard, original documents and a review by the non-partisan FactCheck.org. The ad is running in a district that includes much of Burlington and Ocean counties, where Runyan is retiring.
What's the issue?
MacArthur's opponents — first Steve Lonegan in the GOP primary, now Belgard and the DCCC — have hinged their attacks on three disputes in which MacArthur's former insurance services firm was accused of shortchanging policyholders hit by hurricanes or wildfires. Two incidents were in Texas after Hurricane Ike in 2008: Houston Baptist University and the Port of Galveston sued York and insurance companies it worked for in a fight about payments for storm damage. The third was in California after wildfires in 2008 devastated a community of mobile homes, destroying 480 of them. In that instance, state insurance regulators initiated action against York and the insurer there. Each dispute was settled without any admission of wrongdoing. More detail on them below.
What did MacArthur's firm do?
MacArthur says his firm, York Risk Services, wasn't an "insurance company," though it worked in the insurance industry. Among its services was processing claims for insurers. Bottom line: It had a role in determining how insurance claims would be handled, though MacArthur said, "York didn't make or lose any money based on claim payments, zero." MacArthur sold the firm in 2010, which is significant because the disputes in question happened while he was still CEO. They were settled, he pointed out, after he left.
What were the results?
A lawyer for the Port of Galveston told the Inquirer that it got all $15 million it was seeking in a mediated settlement.
In California, regulators first took action in 2009 — accusing New Hampshire Insurance Co. and York of engaging in "unfair methods of competition or unfair or deceptive acts or practices, and other unlawful acts." That resulted in an added $10.8 million in payments. UPDATE: A MacArthur campaign spokesman said New Hampshire Insurance was responsible for and made the added payments, not York.
The California Department of Insurance returned to the issue in 2012 with accusations of 125 violations against York and New Hampshire insurance. Those were eventually settled with the companies denying the allegations, but each agreed to pay a $142,500 fine. (A link to the settlement is at the bottom of this press release.)
The Houston Baptist case was settled in 2011, according to MacArthur's campaign. Officials at Houston Baptist declined to comment on the outcome.
How does this translate into a political ad?
The narrator in the ad doesn't mention these specific cases (the only reference is a small on-screen citation of a tabloid news story about them). Instead, the ad opens with an image of the wreckage after 2012's Superstorm Sandy, which hammered the district and left many there complaining about insurance delays and runarounds.
"When disaster strikes, some try to help," the narrator says over images of crashing waves and an iconic Jersey Shore roller coaster destroyed in Sandy. "Insurance CEO Tom MacArthur tried to profit."
MacArthur called the tie to Sandy "very, very deceptive." He was out of the insurance business two years earlier and had nothing to do with insurance claims for Sandy.
He took issue with other aspects as well. In accusing MacArthur of pocketing profits at the expense of hurricane victims, the ad cites a news story from 2005 — three years before the incidents that brought about the lawsuits and regulator action. In attacking MacArthur for wanting to help insurance companies "jack up" rates, the citation is a reference to his support for a repeal of President Obama's health law, though the images of the ad point to hurricanes and fires.
What do the candidates say?
"I had no direct involvement at all" in the cases in question, MacArthur said in an interview. "I was running a company with a lot of people in it."
Asked about what York did in each case, he said, "I don't know. The claims came to the fore after I left. I couldn't tell you about the details of them."
The settlements were all finalized after he left, and the port lawsuit wasn't filed until 2011, after his departure.
MacArthur still led the firm during California's initial action, in 2009. Houston Baptist filed suit that year, too. California's second effort, in 2012, came after MacArthur's departure.
Asked if he was involved in settlement talks before he sold the firm, MacArthur said, "Not at all."
The idea of criticizing an insurance firm over lawsuits, MacArthur said, shows that Belgard is "hypocritical and disingenuous" since she spent five years as an insurance claims representative and 16 as an attorney working at a firm that defended insurance companies.
"What is she saying?" MacArthur asked. "That every insurance company she represented was in the right but every time York was sued we were wrong?"
He called lawsuits "part of the industry" that sometimes result from disagreements about a claim and said his firm faced only a "handful" of suits out of more than a million claims handled while he was in charge.
Asked about other incidents that may have involved York, Belgard did not have other examples to offer.
In an interview, she defended the subject of the ad, while noting that it was the DCCC's spot.
"I do think that it raises valid concerns about Tom MacArthur's past as a CEO of York insurance," she said. Democrats have tried to paint MacArthur as a wealthy executive, out of touch with regular people.
Asked about whether the imagery from Sandy is fair to use, Belgard said, "I would have to direct that question to the DCCC."
As for her own role in the insurance industry, Belgard said, "I was a mere employee there, not president and CEO of a company ... Tom MacArthur's attempt to equate the two exemplifies his priority to mislead voters rather" than explain his actions.
Belgard said she "would agree" with a reporter's suggestion that not every company that gets sued has necessarily done something wrong, but added, "there was a history of his company having been sued over time for issues of unsavory practices ... there are a lot of people in my district who are really hurting as a result of delayed and denied insurance claims."
FactCheck weighs in:
FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan site affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, criticized the ad under the headline "DCCC Deceptions."
"While the ad's narrator can fairly say that 'MacArthur ran an insurance company accused of cheating hurricane and wildfire victims,' it's wrong to say, as the accompanying screen graphic does, that MacArthur himself was personally accused of cheating victims," the group wrote.
The DCCC stood behind its piece. Here was a comment Thursday from spokeswoman Emily Bittner:
"If factcheck.org had called us before running their item, we would have happily shared the reality: that this ad clearly and accurately communicates to voters that under Tom MacArthur's leadership, his company was accused of cheating disaster victims and he profited."
What were the details of each case?
Houston Baptist: The school filed its suit in December 2009 against York and Ace American Insurance Co., alleging breach of contract and other violations for failing to pay for certain damage after Ike struck. The case was settled in 2011. The MacArthur campaign said the school was denied a request for treble damages and to reimbursement for its attorneys' fees.
Port of Galveston: The port sued in 2011, also in relation to damages from the 2008 Hurricane Ike. The port was seeking $15 million it believed it was owed, and eventually got it in a mediated settlement, said Joseph Russo, an attorney for the port. "The companies paid and washed their hands of it," he said in an interview earlier this year.
California wildfires: This case initially drew regulators' attention in 2009. While York was named in the initial California Department of Insurance complaint, the news release about the results only cited its client, New Hampshire Insurance Co.
In 2012 the department returned to homeowners' complaints about the insurers, alleging "unfair or deceptive" acts in the time following the fires. The case was settled, with York and New Hampshire Insurance fined $142,500 each. They waived their rights to a hearing but the settlement stipulated that it did not amount to an admission of wrongdoing.