JEFFERSON CITY – A state-sponsored workers’ compensation company has given out huge severance checks to its former executives and hefty bonuses to other employees, according to a state audit released today.
The company, Columbia-based Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance Co., also has bankrolled lavish vacation trips to Hawaii and Mexico as well as paid for sporting events tickets for its board members, executives, employees and guests, the auditor found.
The audit paints a picture of a firm that operates like a private entity, while enjoying federal tax-exempt status and other advantages that its private competitors lack.
Because it is considered an “independent public corporation,” the company has been able to avoid about $50 million in federal taxes since 1993, the audit revealed. That tax exemption has enabled the company to accumulate a surplus of $163 million. The firm has never paid any dividends to its members.
“MEM essentially operates as a private entity, compensates officers and employees at rates that are in excess of public sector entities, incurs expenses that are not considered acceptable in the public sector, and does so without complying with state open records laws,” the audit states.
Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich released the findings today. He undertook the audit after the Post-Dispatch raised questions last year about MEM’s public records policy and the legal status of its board members, along with its executive compensation and other expenditures. The auditor concluded that MEM is a “quasi-public governmental body for purposes of the Sunshine Law” – and thus subject to public records requests.
In a formal response filed with the audit, the company said: “The auditor’s report raises some immaterial, questionable expenditures that MEM already had identified and addressed prior the audit. MEM’s new management has strengthened governmental policies to be sure that expense policies are clearly understood and followed and that the company follows best practices. MEM’s board and management are responsible stewards who operate with integrity.”
The Legislature established Missouri Employers Mutual in 1993 to encourage competition and lower workers’ compensation premiums for employers, particularly small businesses. The state provided a start-up loan of $5 million, which was repaid in 1999 with interest.
Since then, Missouri Employers Mutual has become the leading workers’ compensation insurer in the state, controlling about 16 percent of the market.
The firm’s inner workings drew questions last spring after two former board members were indicted separately for alleged theft and fraud involving other organizations. Questions mounted in June when the company fired its chief executive officer, former Missouri Gov. Roger Wilson, without explanation.
In August, the board agreed to a one-time audit by Schweich. Amid the swirling controversy, both indicted board members – Doug Morgan and Karen Pletz – died late last year. The company is now run by chief executive officer Jim Owen of Chesterfield, a law school classmate and close friend of Gov. Jay Nixon’s.
The 20-page audit sheds light on MEM’s executive compensation, perks, severance benefits, freebies, and political contributions, as well as legal questions surrounding the company’s taxes and refusal to observe public records laws.
According to the audit, MEM also paid about $1.58 million in severance benefits or settlement payments to four former top executives and employees who either resigned or whose employment was terminated in 2009 and 2010.
Schweich’s audit does not name names, so it is impossible to tell who received the severance money. Former state Sen. Dennis Smith served as the company’s first chief executive from 1994 through June 2009, when he became “CEO emeritus.”
The audit called the severance benefits “excessive” and said that “recent discussions with a MEM official indicate that any future severance benefits paid to executives will be substantially reduced, or eliminated.”
Executive compensation at MEM also “appears significantly higher than would be considered appropriate for a public sector entity,” the audit states.
During 2010, MEM’s top 10 compensated employees made salaries totaling $1.8 million. The top salary was $312,820.
In addition to their salaries, MEM paid its top 10 executives a total of $659,405 in incentives, for an average bonus of $65,940. In other words, when bonuses are counted on top of salaries, the top 10 employees were paid an average almost $250,000 apiece.
Lower-level MEM employees also received substantial bonuses, based on the company’s “performance benchmarks” such as premium growth.
“Compensation and employee incentive bonuses for 2010 totaled over $17 million for approximately 200 employees, an average total payout of approximately $85,000 per employee,” the audit said.
MEM executives also received valuable perks such as the use of company automobiles, paid health insurance coverage for a spouse, five weeks paid time off, paid dues in professional societies and paid memberships in golf and athletic clubs.
Responding to the audit, MEM wrote that its “compensation and expenses are reasonable and necessary for a mutual insurance company. … MEM’s employee compensation averages in the 50th percentile” of other private insurers.
The audit also highlights numerous miscellaneous expenditures that MEM paid:
A total of $300,000 for an all-inclusive “Presidents Trip” for 64 invitees including MEM board members, top executives, top performing employees, and other guests to Lanai, Hawaii, from Feb. 20 through Feb. 25, 2010. In 2009, MEM’s board chairman, vice chairman and their guests attended the company’s President’s Trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. About $17,000 for St. Louis Cardinals suite tickets. The suite was used to entertain insurance agents as an incentive to doing business with MEM. The tickets were purchased from an unnamed associate of a former board member. About $60,000 for a suite, tickets, and parking passes for University of Missouri football games; an additional $12,000 for basketball tickets and parking passes; and about $5,000 to cater its tailgate party at the university’s homecoming in 2010. $80,000 for company functions in 2010, including $10,000 for a board of directors retreat in Ridgeville, Mo.; $16,000 for MEM’s annual golf tournament; about $8,800 for 15-year anniversary jackets; and about $7,000 for a 15-year anniversary luncheon.
In addition, the audit challenges MEM’s $7.2 million purchase of a for-profit subsidiary. Under state law, the auditor concluded, it is unclear whether the company may legally insure workers who work outside the state.
The audit also noted that MEM conducted an internal inquiry, which revealed that company funds were used for $8,000 in political contributions to the Missouri Democratic Party; $7,400 in cash and in-kind donations to the Insurance Coalition Political Action Committee; $4,000 in donations to gubernatorial inaugural festivities in 2005 and 2009; and $8,000 for a former top executive’s personal legal fees.
The audit is likely to raise additional questions in the Legislature about whether Missouri Employers Mutual should continue to enjoy tax-free status and other advantages over private insurers.
Originally, the company was supposed to become a private firm after the governor appointed the original five board members. But instead, the state has retained control. The governor appoints three of the firms’ five board members, based on nominations from the board and policyholders.
The structure is authorized in company bylaws but not in state law. Schweich said he took no position on whether MEM can prolong its public corporation status beyond that allowed by law by amending its bylaws.
MEM contended that it faces special mandates that partially offset its tax advantages. For example, it must let any of the 4,000 workers compensation insurance agents in the state write a policy for MEM. The company also is required to design and monitor work safety programs for policyholders.
Schweich said the firm was unable to quantify the impact of those requirements.