Top Broker, Major Firms
Named in Legal Actions;
'Trust Me: This Is Day One'
By THEO FRANCIS
Staff Reporter of THE
Marsh & McLennan Cos., the world's biggest insurance broker, cheated corporate clients by rigging bids and collecting huge fees from major insurance companies for throwing business their way, according to allegations made by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Mr. Spitzer's charges came in a civil suit as well as in plea-bargain deals on criminal charges against two insurance executives.
The civil complaint filed by Mr. Spitzer against Marsh in state supreme court in Manhattan names insurance companies American International Group Inc., Ace Ltd., Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and Munich-American Risk Partners as participants with Marsh in paying improper fees and bid rigging.
Two AIG executives each pleaded guilty to a first-degree felony
count of a "scheme to defraud." The probe could extend to top
executives at AIG -- the largest
Mr. Spitzer's allegations depict the insurance industry as plagued with corruption and signal a much wider probe than was previously known, shedding new light on the issue of bid rigging and touching on almost all forms of insurance.
"The insurance industry needs to take a long, hard look at itself," Mr. Spitzer said. "If the practices identified in our suit are as widespread as they appear to be, then the industry's fundamental business model needs major corrective action and reform."
He made clear that other insurers and insurance brokers could face criminal and civil charges: "Trust me, this is day one," he said.
Marsh and the four insurers all said they are cooperating with Mr. Spitzer's office. The news of the legal actions caused major insurance-industry stocks to drop sharply.
Marsh shares closed at $34.85, down $11.28, or 24%, in composite
trading on the New York Stock Exchange, while AIG closed at $60, down $6.99,
off 10%. Both companies are based in
The announcements bring to a head Mr. Spitzer's months-long investigation into the practices of insurance brokers. The inquiry was disclosed by major insurance brokers this spring, and it raised questions about the fairness of an industry that reaches deep into every part of the business world and the pocketbooks of consumers. Mr. Spitzer said unsuspecting insurance buyers, who believed that brokers were looking out first for their clients' interests, included large and midsize corporations, municipal governments, school districts and some individuals.
Mr. Spitzer has become a huge and controversial force in shaking
up the way the
The probes all have in common that they soiled the reputations of some of the country's best-known and largest corporations. While the facts differed in each one, the scandals share a common element: alleged wrongdoing that had been commonplace for years, often with regulators looking the other way.
Insurers are regulated by individual states, and the
state-by-state oversight may have helped pave the way for the problems Mr.
Spitzer cites, some critics say. Different standards can apply in different
states, and even states that, like
In general, insurance brokers serve as middlemen, matching
buyers and sellers, and Marsh long has been the leader in the business. For
their part, the insurers linked to its alleged wrongdoing are some of the
leaders in selling property-casualty coverage to businesses around the world. Industrywide, premiums paid last year just in the
In essence, Mr. Spitzer maintains that Marsh steered business toward certain insurers at designated prices, and then would solicit "B" bids, or artificially high fake bids, from other insurers to give the appearance of real bidding. Marsh did this even as it claimed in public statements that its "guiding principle" was to consider its client's best interests, he alleged.
At the heart of the inquiry are fees that many insurance brokers receive from insurance companies over and above their ordinary commissions. Many are paid for steering volume business an insurer's way. Insurance companies call the fees "contingent commissions" or "market service agreements." A growing chorus of critics, including some policyholders who have sued over the practice in state courts in recent years, have used another term: "kickback."
While controversy has swirled over contingent commissions before, prompting some lawsuits, Mr. Spitzer's bid-rigging allegations are new. If true, they could lead to a new wave of corporate and class-action litigation.
The fee arrangements date back several decades. Many industry
executives say it was no big secret among insiders that such pacts were in
place to boost revenue at both the insurance brokers and the insurance
companies that agreed to them. Controversy over them first flared up in the
late 1990s, when
The brokers say their practices are above-board and appropriate, and that they now disclose the payments adequately. But critics say the practices remain poorly disclosed and are a conflict of interest for brokers acting on policyholders' behalf.
Mr. Spitzer said Marsh "very possibly" could face criminal charges for the conduct described in the civil complaint. In investigating the firm, he said his office was "misled at the very highest levels of that company." He also said, "The leadership of that company is not a leadership I will talk to; it is not a leadership I will negotiate with."
Marsh said in a statement that it has been cooperating with Mr. Spitzer's office. "We are committed to getting all the facts, determining any incidence of improper behavior, and dealing appropriately with any wrongdoing. Marsh is committed to serving its clients to the highest professional and ethical standards."
AIG said it had sought guidance from
AIG executives Jean-Baptist Tateossian,
"On numerous occasions," Ms. Radke and Mr. Tateossian both supplied fake quotes to provide the illusion of competitive bidding for Marsh clients, "knowing that another insurance carrier would nonetheless win the bid." Attorneys for each couldn't be reached for comment late yesterday.
Mr. Spitzer's allegations indirectly touch three members of what
might be called the first family of insurance. The chairman and chief executive
of AIG is Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, while his eldest son,
Marsh received $800 million in revenue from the contingent commissions last year, the equivalent of more than half its $1.5 billion in income, Mr. Spitzer said. He called the comparison valid because, he said, Marsh performs few services in return for those payments, making them highly profitable.
Mr. Spitzer's complaint cites internal communications in which Marsh and insurers openly discussed actions to maximize their revenues. In one, a Marsh executive noted that the size of contingent commissions will determine "who we are steering business to and who we are steering business from."
In a file memo included as a court document, an AIG underwriter said that a broker "wanted us to quote around $900,000" as the cost of coverage for one client, while another insurer bid $750,000.
The lawsuit also describes how Ace raised its bid in 2002 on a policy for a manufacturer to $1.1 million from $990,000 allegedly at Marsh's request "to be less competitive, so AIG does not lose the business," the complaint says, quoting an Ace e-mail.
A Marsh official later allegedly warned Ace to continue providing inflated bids, or "B quotes," adding, "I do not want to hear that you are not doing B quotes or we will not bind anything," according to the lawsuit. Insurers refer to placing business as "binding" it.
Similarly, the lawsuit contends, one Marsh executive "warned that AIG would lose its entire book of business with Marsh" if the insurer didn't provide inflated quotes to clients at Marsh's behest.
Mr. Spitzer said that evidence uncovered in the probe suggests that illegal and improper practices extend to "virtually every major insurance broker" and through every line of insurance, including personal auto coverage, health insurance, life insurance and employee benefits. He declined to elaborate.
Marsh has named the head of its Marsh Kroll risk and insurance-services unit to head an internal probe, along with attorneys with law firm Davis Polk. Yesterday evening, Marsh's independent directors issued a statement that in part affirmed its "full confidence in the company's leadership" and promised to "take all appropriate action" once the company's internal review is complete.
The two next-biggest U.S. brokers, Chicago-based Aon Corp. and New York-based Willis Group Holdings Ltd., also receive contingent commissions and have received subpoenas from Mr. Spitzer's office. Those companies weren't implicated in bid-rigging yesterday, but Mr. Spitzer left the door open for litigation against other brokers later.
Write to Theo Francis at firstname.lastname@example.org