Nine Maryland insurance agencies have been charged by the Maryland Insurance Commission with keeping between $2 million and $3 million in premiums, rather than turning in the fees to their insurance companies.
That brings to 12 the number of agencies the commission has accused of mishandling clients' funds this year.
Premiums improperly retained by the agencies were supposed to be forwarded to insurance companies or refunded to former policyholders, insurance commission officials said. The problem is so widespread, officials said, that a special inspection team will continue the investigation until every agency in the state has been cleared.
None of the individuals who purchased policies have been left without coverage. State law makes the insurance company responsible for coverage once its agent collects a premium, even if the company never received money from the agent.
Allegations of the widespread abuses reported late last month are being reviewed by prosecutors in Baltimore to determine whether any criminal charges will be lodged, according to assistant state's attorney Bernard Cole, chief of the Major Frauds Divison.
Agencies found guilty in administrative hearings before the insurance division face maximum fines of $500 for each violation in addition to suspension or revocation of their broker's licenses.
Insurance commission officials believe the recession may be one of the causes of improper handling of funds. Many agencies face cash shortages, making daily operations difficult, according to deputy insurance commissioner Edward J. Muhl.
"An insurance agency with built-in expenses might have a tendency to keep premiums to pay their daily expenses instead of passing them along as the law requires," Muhl said.
One official within the insurance division said he thinks the investigation should focus on insurance companies. Insurance companies could apply sufficient pressure on agents to halt the practice in much less time than it would take to investigate every agency in Maryland, according to insurance division spokesman Byron Roberts.
The only case heard thus far involves the largest insurance agency on Maryland's Eastern Shore, The Hardester Corp.
Roberts said Hardester owes nine creditors, including a broker for Lloyds of London, at least $1 million. The broker, Harrison Horncastle Insurance Brokers Ltd. of London, has taken over operations of the Hardester Corp., Roberts said.
The only other hearing scheduled involves West Baltimore state delegate Frank M. Conoway. Conoway allegedly mishandled premium funds through Ashburton Insurance Ltd.
Conoway refused to comment on the charges yesterday.
According to the insurance division, the initial six charges brought late last month were against:
* Perkins & Associates, Bethesda, and agents Frances C. Perkins, C. Graham Perkins, Robert E. Cogan and Lenny C. Walker, for allegedly failing to pay $387,863 to two insurance insurance companies in 1981 and 1982.
* Larry Parks Insurance, Lutherville, and agent Larry W. Parks Jr., for allegedly mishandling $146,590 in 1981 and 1982 by failing to remit premiums and by charging a premium finance company for policies that did not exist and, in one case, a client who did not exist.
* Kent Insurance Co., Rockville, and agent Robert H. Kent, for allegedly failing to forward $146,018 due an insurance company and clients in 1982.
* Stem Insurance Co., Eldersburg, and agent Thomas V. Stem, for allegedly failing to pay two insurance companies $92,205 he had collected in premiums in 1980, 1981, and 1982.
* Consumers Financial Services Inc., McLean, Va., and Dealers Management Inc., of Randallstown, and principals James H. Thornboro and David R. Cohen, for allegedly failing to pay $67,757 in collected premiums to an insurance company since 1980 and for allegedly operating without proper broker's licenses.
* Linmarc Insurance, La Plata, and agents Mildred A. Stephenson and Carroll D. Stephenson, for allegedly mishandling $16,937, including $4,558 owed to the state in 1981 for withholding taxes, and $9,070 in bounced checks.
Details of other charges by the division against the other six Maryland insurance agencies were not available yesterday.