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Insurance Department spends thousands on guns, ammo, Tasers and other equipment to apprehend fraud suspects 

Since new head of criminal division was hired in 2016.

click to enlarge READY TO ROLL: One of the state Insurance Department's police cars.
  • READY TO ROLL: One of the state Insurance Department's police cars.

Since hiring a new head for its eight-person criminal investigation division in August 2016, the Arkansas Insurance Department has spent over $163,000 on shotguns, training, training-related travel, Taser stun guns, four cars, bulk ammo, a vinyl automobile wrap, uniforms, body armor and other police-related equipment.

Deputy Commissioner Paul "Blue" Keller's previous law enforcement experience was two years as a deputy with the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office, and three years as a part-time reserve deputy. Nevertheless, Keller received a pay bump of more than $37,000 per year over his immediate predecessor in the job.

The Insurance Department's Criminal Investigation Division handles allegations of criminal insurance fraud, building cases against those who would cheat insurance providers or falsify insurance documents. A list of successful prosecutions on the AID website shows convictions for faked injuries, misrepresented car damage, lying about auto theft, sales of fraudulent insurance documents and other crimes. As established by Act 984 of 2013, the CID is a law enforcement agency, and its investigators are required to be certified law enforcement officers, with jurisdiction all over the state. But no CID staffer has ever used physical force in the course of their duties in the history of the agency, according to a department spokesman.

Keller received a starting salary of $121,759.04 per year when hired, compared to his predecessor Greg Sink's $84,005.09 yearly salary when Sink left the agency. Keller's current salary is $122,976.67. AID Commissioner Allen Kerr was appointed by Governor Hutchinson in January 2015. Kerr had previously served three terms in the state House of Representatives.

Documents obtained by Arkansas Times through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act show that since Keller was hired, he has spent $45,422.74 on firearms, training, travel and uniforms. Additionally, the AID has spent a total of $107,297.62 on automobiles during Keller's tenure, with an additional $10,741.56 spent adding locking shotgun mounts, radios, a Plexiglas divider and a colorful wrap to badge a car with "Arkansas Insurance Department Criminal Investigation Division" down both sides.

The four vehicles purchased by the AID since Keller's hiring include two 2018 Ford Taurus all-wheel-drive "police interceptor" sedans for $24,425 each; one 2017 Ford Taurus for $24,425 equipped with a $3,177.75 "police package," and one 2017 Ford Explorer for $26,705 equipped with a $4,139.87 "police package." AID spokesman Ryan James said the new cars replaced department cars with mechanical issues and high mileage. He also said AID vehicles were sometimes driven home by employees at the end of the workday, as allowed by state regulations.

In Keller's roughly 18 months on the job, documents show the Criminal Investigation Division has spent $11,291 to purchase eight shotguns, four Taser brand stun guns and backup cartridges, pepper spray, ammo and "individual tourniquets" for the department's six investigators, Keller and his assistant director to carry. That's in addition to investigators' previously-issued Glock side arms.

An additional $10,185.00 has been spent during Keller's time with the agency on investigator training, plus $16,469.49 on employee travel to training and conferences. A list of 30 training seminars attended by investigators during Keller's tenure includes "Glock School," "Terrorism Related Officer Safety Strategies," "Warrior Leadership for Law Enforcement," training in shotgun usage for eight employees, active shooter training, a course on using cell phones as an investigative tool, a course called "The Bullet Proof Mind" and Little Rock Police Department Firearms Instructor Training.

During Sink's last full year of employment with the investigations division, just over $3,500 was spent on investigator training, employee travel, firearms, uniforms and automobile modifications. Of that, $2,159.76 was spent on employee travel, $1,210 on training and $197.30 on firearms. No money was spent on uniforms or automobile modifications in Sink's last year with the agency. Sink, who holds a law license, is now with the Saline County Prosecuting Attorney's office. He declined a request to comment for this story.

Kerr said he had no relationship — social, familial or professional — prior to Keller's hiring. A career Army veteran who spent over 25 years in the U.S. military, Keller holds master's degrees in national security affairs and secondary education. Between 2003 and 2012, he worked as a coach and teacher of history, civics and social studies with the private Arkansas Baptist School System. A resume provided by James says that between 2014 and Keller's hiring at the AID, Keller worked in Africa as a security manager for Kinross Gold, a mining company headquartered in Toronto.

James said that before Keller was hired, the Criminal Investigation Division had been completely reorganized, with three positions removed: an investigator, an attorney and an administrative position. James said the reorganization and reduction in staff saved the AID $165,491 per year.

"The review highlighted the need for tightened security measures and tracking, improved procedures, accountability and improved internal management," James wrote in an email. "A reorganization and change in key personnel was necessary to tighten procedures and deploy personnel and resources in order to maximize efficiency and proficiency."

Asked via email if there are significant changes between Sink's duties and those required of Keller that would justify the $37,000-plus per year pay increase, James said there were. "It was determined that [CID] would be best served by an experienced law enforcement director with a proven track record in the effective management of government resources and ability to coordinate all aspects of investigations." James said other candidates were considered, though the position was not required to be advertised.

Kerr said he believes the expenditures made by and for the CID are "critical" to keeping the agency's investigators safe. The purchases for CID, Kerr said, are paid for out of anti-fraud fees assessed to every insurance company doing business in the state. Once Act 984 designated the CID as a law enforcement agency and required CID investigators to be certified police officers, investigator training and equipment had to be brought up to that level, Kerr said.

"Our State Police, city police, whatever training they have, whatever equipment they have, that means we need to be in parallel with them. This is a statewide agency. They go into some pretty dangerous situations."

Kerr said that Keller's pay increase of more than $37,000 per year over his predecessor is justified, and paid for out of savings from a reorganization of the department.

"When you've got someone as qualified as Mr. Keller, of course you want to make sure he gets compensated correctly. We had a lot of decreases in that division as well as some vacancies that we didn't fill. The total savings when we were done with reorganizing the division was $165,000 and some change overall." When the division was reorganized, the head of the CID was also made a deputy commissioner, James said.

Kerr said that while the allegations the CID investigates are related to insurance fraud, the people they deal with are often involved in more serious criminal behavior. He and James both noted a June 2011 incident in Louisiana in which two insurance investigators were shot and killed while speaking with a car insurance fraud suspect, who later killed himself. The incident led to Louisiana arming that state's insurance fraud investigators for the first time. Any situation can turn desperate, Kerr said, adding that he would rather be criticized for spending too much on training and equipment for CID investigators than send them out with too little.

"I've been in the insurance business a long time, and I've found that if you're insured for it, most likely it doesn't happen," he said. "The one thing that you're not insured for, the one thing you're not prepared for, is probably the thing that will happen. So I will not send my people into dangerous situations unless they have the training and the equipment."


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