OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A state senator voiced concern Monday about the Oklahoma Insurance Department's recent purchase of police vehicles, shotguns and other law enforcement equipment, and said he plans to introduce a bill to stop what he described as the agency's "police-like posture."
Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, said he believes Insurance Commissioner John Doak's office is engaging in "government overreach" and that the department shouldn't give the public the impression that the agency's anti-fraud investigators are a police force.
"Why would we want the insurance examiners and auditors to roll up to somebody's building in a police-outfitted unit, unless it was to intimidate them?" Coates said. "If he wants his guys to wear a bulletproof vest, I don't have a problem with that, but stay out of police vehicles. Don't roll up there with your shotgun standing up in the rack with your light bar and all that."
The Associated Press reported last week that the agency had spent more than $180,000 on seven police-package vehicles, shotguns with mountable lights, and bulletproof vests for its nine-member anti-fraud unit, which typically investigates white-collar insurance crimes. The purchases raised concern among lawmakers from both parties who described the equipment as excessive.
Doak said the items were needed to keep his fraud investigators safe and cited a Louisiana case in which two insurance department agents were shot and killed. He also noted the money used to buy the equipment came from fees, fines and settlements, not directly from legislative appropriations.
In a statement released after the AP story, Doak said he was proud of the agency's anti-fraud unit and happy to address any of the lawmakers' concerns.
"They investigate serious crimes including embezzlement, exploitation of the elderly and fraud. We've had cases where victims lost their life savings. We helped track that individual all the way to Florida where he was arrested. Our investigators also respond to natural disaster scenes, looking for unscrupulous contractors and making sure vulnerable consumers aren't victimized for a second time," Doak said. "Protecting Oklahomans is my top priority. I will do whatever I can to keep them and my investigators safe."
Some lawmakers also came to Doak's defense. State Sen. Bill Brown, a retired insurance company owner and chairman of the Senate Retirement and Insurance Committee, said he supported the agency's anti-fraud efforts "100 percent."
"People need to understand that insurance crime is serious," Brown said in a statement. "Those behind it stand to lose a lot of money if they're found out, so they can be very dangerous."
Brown wrote the bill two years ago that created the anti-fraud revolving fund Doak's office used to buy the police equipment.
Coates said the anti-fraud investigators already are certified by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training to carry pistols and that he believes shotguns and police vehicles are overkill.
"There is no reason to have a shotgun in the vehicle. Good grief," Coates said. "Wear normal, business-type apparel when you go do an audit and quit being confrontational to these clients."
Coates said he will introduce a bill next session to require the commissioner's office to use standard state vehicles from the motor pool like most state agencies and get rid of the police-package vehicles and shotguns. He said his legislation also would clarify which agency personnel can have weapons and restrict the use of police-style vehicles.
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy