Despite protests by victims of Tropical Storm Isabel, a Maryland Senate committee voted unanimously last night to accept the nomination of Alfred W. Redmer Jr. as state insurance commissioner.
The senators on the Executive Nominations Committee questioned Redmer for more than an hour about his stance that federal law prevents him from taking aggressive action on consumers' behalf in flood insurance complaints. Although many of the senators accepted Redmer's explanation of his interpretation of the law, some took him to task for not being a more visible and forceful advocate for flood victims.
"I think that's legal gobbledygook," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said of Redmer's explanation. "I think it's a wake-up call. ... We've got 300 people without their houses right now. We don't have a people's counsel for the insurance industry, and we need somebody to stand up and fight for them."
Redmer's confirmation hearing was held a week after his predecessor, Steven B. Larsen, released a report concluding that Redmer should hold flood insurance providers to the same standards as companies selling homeowner or auto insurance.
Frustrated by Redmer's response, more than 60 Isabel victims gathered Sunday in eastern Baltimore County, and called on the Senate to delay confirmation until he took more aggressive action.
Accompanied by Kathleen A. Birrane, the assistant attorney general assigned to the Maryland Insurance Administration, Redmer provided his most detailed explanation yet for the limitations he sees on his role.
Birrane said she researched extensively to determine whether Redmer had the right to hold companies selling flood insurance to state standards and concluded that if he attempted to punish them, the companies would sue and Redmer would lose.
Amid questioning from the senators about the Larsen report, which came to the opposite conclusion, Birrane said the study cited cases that were not germane because they did not involve action taken by a state insurance commissioner. It also did not take into account the most recent federal regulatory changes for flood insurance.
Redmer said his agency has assisted more than 1,300 Isabel victims and acted as an advocate for consumers with flood insurance problems. Many of those who need help have never contacted the Maryland Insurance Administration, he said.
"If we were guilty of anything, it was poor [public relations] in not letting every Maryland citizen know what we were doing on their behalf," Redmer said.
Bernice Myer, the Millers Island resident who organized Sunday's protest, testified before the committee that the reason so many people have not enlisted Redmer's aid is that he has said repeatedly in public forums and in the media that he does not have jurisdiction over flood insurance. She said the victims of the storm need the commissioner to take the insurance companies to task.
"Are these companies accountable to anyone, be it state government, local government or federal government, or can they just continue to rake people over the coals?" she said. "I don't know who can help, and I don't know how they can help, but I just hope they do."
The full Senate is scheduled to vote on the Redmer's confirmation Friday.