A California ballot item would legalize practices Mercury has been fined for.
If you work as a bartender, junk dealer, longshoreman, actor or domestic worker, you might have had trouble getting home insurance from Mercury Corp. at one time or another.
And if you were a soldier who was transferred from one U.S. base to another, you might have been turned away when inquiring about car insurance.
Or so we are told in a 275-page report by the state Department of Insurance -- dug up by the San Francisco Chronicle -- which found widespread discriminatory practices and other infractions by Mercury from the mid-1990s until 2004.
"In my career as a consumer advocate, I've never seen such a devastating indictment of a single insurance company," said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica and author of Prop. 103. He called the practices "illegal, unfair and un-American," saying "it's shocking that Mercury so brazenly defied the law for so many years."
Rosenfield said Prop. 17 will allow Mercury to raise rates for Californians not previously insured or those who let their insurance lapse - a practice that is illegal under Prop. 103.
"What's outrageous is that Mercury is spending millions on an initiative to legalize the kind of discriminatory surcharges that they were caught doing by (state) investigators," Rosenfield said.
Mercury -- which has shelled out enough money in campaign contributions to own Sacramento outright -- has also spent millions supporting Proposition 17, an initiative Californians will vote on in June that critics say would legalize some of the practices for which Mercury was fined.
If passed, Proposition 17 would require insurers to offer so-called "persistency" discounts to drivers who have good records and no lapse in coverage, which is a good thing for those people, naturally.
But under the misleadingly titled Continuous Coverage Discount Initiative, other drivers would be punished, according to the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. If you have a lapse of 90 days or more in coverage for any reason other than foreign military service during a five-year period, you can be hit with a hefty surcharge.
Let's say you move to New York, where you don't need a car, and then move back to L.A. You could not only lose the discounted rate you had, but might have to pay a surcharge to get insurance at all.
Or maybe you're temporarily transferred from Camp Pendleton to Camp Lejeune and leave the car behind, unused. When you get back home, you could lose your discount.
A skeptic about the initiative is Joseph Mael, a Los Angeles therapist specializing in autism. Mael, who blogs for Santa Monica City Buzz, began his last posting like this: "Like many Californians, I was burned by Mercury auto insurance in the '90s. After my rates went up, despite a 'discounted' quote by the agent, I was left wondering what, exactly, I had done."
Mael told me that he had been in an accident he didn't cause and that his premium had shot up. He has since switched carriers but said that based on his experience and Mercury's full-throttle campaign for Prop. 17, he's a skeptic.
"I think it's deceptive," he said of the initiative.