Sink rips DeLand legislator for stalling on seniors bill

Mar 25, 2009

Orlando Sentinel--March 25, 2009

Aaron Deslatte

Tallahassee Bureau

CFO Alex Sink has angrily accused DeLand Rep. Pat Patterson of bottling up a bill meant to increase the penalties for unscrupulous insurance agents who bilk seniors out of their life savings.

Sink, a Democrat, has been pushing for more than in a year to mandate prison time for insurance agents who coax seniors aged 65 and older into buying insurance annuities that might not start paying out benefits for years.

The so-called “Safeguard Our Seniors” bill (HB 981) makes a practice known as “twisting” and “churning” a third-degree felony that carries a prison sentence of up to five years. It would apply to agents who intentionally distort the type of life insurance product they’re selling or coax seniors into liquidating their assets to buy long-term annuities that generate big commissions for the agents.

The bill passed in the Senate last year but died in the House, where leaders wanted to strip out the felony penalty. This year is shaping up the same way.

Sink’s office is particularly miffed at Patterson, a Republican and insurance agent who chairs the House Insurance, Business and Financial Affairs Policy Committee. He has told Sink’s staff he doesn’t plan to give the bill a hearing in the 60-day legislative session.

“The ‘Safeguard our Seniors’ legislation would protect Florida’s seniors against financial fraud, and it is a bipartisan bill, sponsored by a Republican senator and a Democratic representative,” Sink said in a statement sent to the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday. “I think it’s appalling that Rep. Patterson would rather play politics than bring this important piece of legislation which protects seniors before his committee.”

Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, who is sponsoring the bill, called the gridlock a “disgrace” and appealed to House Speaker Pro Tem Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, on Monday to get the bill heard, but said he was told Patterson wasn’t interested.

“I don’t know what we’re doing up here; we’re not hearing bills,” Fitzgerald said.

“I think the state of Florida is in a state of crisis and we’ve got committee chairs who just will not hear bills on important matters. If we were generally tied up solving the economic crisis of this state, I would understand it … but we’re not hearing those bills, either.”

Patterson didn’t respond to messages left with his Capitol staff. But the Senate sponsor, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, laid the blame squarely at the feet of the bill’s biggest critic last year: the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., or MetLife.

“MetLife killed it before and I would caution any consumer that I would be very, very careful buying any product from MetLife as long as they’re opposing those kind of regulations,” Bennett said Tuesday, adding he planned to talk to Patterson about hearing the bill.

Holly Sheffer, a MetLife spokeswoman, said the company “was concerned … that the proposed felony language within the bill unfairly applied only to the sale of annuities and not other financial services products such as mutual funds.”