Jurors convict former Georgia insurance chief in $2M fraud

ATLANTA (AP) — It took less than two hours Thursday for jurors to decide that Georgia’s suspended insurance commissioner was indeed a “fraudster” and not an innovator, as they convicted Jim Beck on 37 criminal counts relating to more than $2 million he embezzled from his former employer.

The verdict was a swift end after testimony that stretched over parts of eight days. Federal officials began investigating Beck as he was being elected statewide in 2018 as Georgia’s chief insurance regulator and indicted him weeks after the Republican took office in 2019.

Prosecutors presented evidence at trial showing Beck orchestrated a scheme to channel more than $2 million from the Georgia Underwriting Association through a series of companies into his own bank accounts. Beck had managed the state-chartered private insurer of last resort for years before he took office.

Beck took the stand in his defense earlier in the week. He testified that subcontractors he directed provided valuable data that helped GUA increase its profits. However, prosecutors argued much of the supposed work was a sham.

Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 8 on mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and tax fraud charges. In part because the amount of money Beck stole is so large, he’s likely to face what U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen described as a “substantial” sentence.

Cohen allowed Beck to remain free on bail. But he ordered Beck confined to his home in Carrollton, west of Atlanta, while awaiting sentencing except for court appearances, medical care and other court-approved outings.

Prosecutors and Beck’s lawyers declined comment immediately after the verdict.

Under state law, Beck was automatically removed from office upon conviction. Gov. Brian Kemp has appointed John King to run the office and the Republican is running for a full term in 2022.

Beck asked Kemp to suspend him when he was indicted but he continued to draw a $195,000 yearly salary. State lawmakers this year proposed a constitutional amendment to suspend the pay of officials that are suspended from office while facing criminal charges. Voters will decide the amendment in 2022.

Jurors rejected Beck’s claims that he had provided data that allowed GUA to raise insurance prices and pay others less to share in its risks.

“The evidence makes completely clear that Jim Beck … is a thief,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Gray said in closing arguments. “He is an ordinary, plain, fast talking — and rich — fraudster.”

Defense attorney Bill Thomas repeatedly told jurors that investigators didn’t understand the insurance business and that prosecutors hadn’t provided enough evidence to merit a conviction. He told the jurors “the government just has it wrong in this case” because Beck’s work transformed GUA from a longtime money-loser to a strongly profitable entity.

“A man who takes a company from worst to first — when in 40 years that company didn’t make money — can’t have an intent to harm or deceive the company,” Thomas said in closing arguments.

Thomas said that while Beck’s methods may have been “unorthodox,” that alone was not enough to make Beck guilty of fraud.

Prosecutors pounded away at Beck’s credibility, arguing he concealed his financial interest in two companies, Green Technology Services and Paperless Solutions, that were getting money from GUA. They pointed to an email that Beck drafted laying out how the trail of payments ultimately reached him, with Gray calling it “absolutely a smoking gun.”

Gray also rehashed an email where Beck posed as Green Technology owner Matt Barfield to the wife of a longtime friend, saying Beck was “caught red-handed lying.”

The defense argued Beck’s work provided important data that allowed GUA to charge higher premiums and pay less to reinsurers to share in its risk. Beck testified Tuesday and Wednesday that a man named Jerry Jordan was the computer programmer who wrote programs collecting that data. Beck testified there weren’t any withdrawals from his bank accounts to pay Jordan because he paid him in cash he had accumulated in a safety deposit box and at his home.

Beck told jurors he didn’t know where Jordan is today and had no correspondence to prove his relationship. However, former Haralson County Sheriff Eddie Mixon testified Thursday that Beck introduced Mixon to Jordan once at a community event.

Retired IRS investigator Bill Bruton testified Thursday that Beck reported around $880,000 of income from 2014 to 2018 that was never deposited in a bank and was presumably available as cash.

But jurors were unpersuaded, instead siding with prosecutors.

“Jim Beck treated that company that those customers paid money to as a piggy bank,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sekret Sneed said. “The defendant stole from his employer and he funneled that money to himself for his own benefit. And he lied about and he lied about on his taxes.”

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.

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