TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A defiant president of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. testified before the company's Board of Governors Tuesday and blasted the media for reporting misleading information about problems at the state-run insurer.
Barry Gilway angrily dismissed many of the problems uncovered by the media as old news that was already investigated and did not warrant new attention.
The questionable practices among top executives date back several years and include: huge severance payments, inconsistent disciplinary actions, travel abuses and lavish spending on hotels -- as much as $600 a night.
Other allegations have surfaced in an internal report detailing sexual harassment and improper conduct, including an incident at the Coyote Ugly Bar in Tampa in which two managers took off their bras in front of employees and danced while participating in a company-sponsored conference.
Gilway admitted Citizens made mistakes, but he accused the media of running some stories that were inaccurate and damaging to employees' reputations.
"The last time I looked around, we were still in the United States of America. We have not been annexed to a communist regime and we still have some basic rights and those rights, by the way, include innocent until proven guilty."
Gilway, who became Citizens' president in June, addressed his controversial decision to eliminate the company's Office of Corporate Integrity. He fired the unit's four staffers in the middle of an investigation, led by Gov. Rick Scott's office, into allegations of inappropriate spending among top executives at the company.
Gilway's decision prompted the governor to launch another investigation into those firings. Critics said it looked like they were fired for finding unflattering behavior among management employees.
Gilway said he shut down the Office of Corporate Integrity because he wanted to hire investigators with more expertise in forensics accounting, but he didn't find those experts before dumping the unit.
Now he concedes that was a mistake.
"In hindsight, dumb decision. What can I possibly say? Dumb decision."
Gilway told the Board of Governors he was personally disgusted by some of the past behavior of employees, which he pointed out happened before his tenure, but he lashed out at the media for reporting allegations about a few employees that ended up tarnishing the work of all 1,300 workers at Citizens.
"I don't condone the negative actions that were taken by employees. I really don't. I think they're disgusting in many cases. But let's not tarnish the reputation of 99.99 percent of Citizens employees who bust their tail for you every single day because of the irrational, irresponsible acts of a few people."
Board Chairman Carlos Lacasa called it a new day at Citizens.
"We will win back the credibility of this company in the eyes of the public."
Government watchdog group Integrity Florida applauded Gilway for admitting mistakes and taking action to fix them.
Spokesman Dan Krassner said those steps will help restore people's confidence in the insurer.
"Citizens Insurance's president has admitted mistakes. New policies and procedures are being put in place so the public should have confidence that the new leadership at Citizens is moving in a better direction."