A Washington reporter waiting here recently to interview George I. Johnson, Virginia's chief insurance investigator and a state employe since 1951, rose to ask a 60ish-looking gentleman if he were Johnson.
"What's left of him," dead-panned Johnson, eyeing the reporter suspiciously before walking into his faded inner office.
Johnson, known around the capital simply as G.I., gives the impression more of a yup-and-nope Southside Virginia tobacco farmer than the man responsible for digging into allegations of illegal behavior by the 35,000 agents in the state's $3 billion-a-year insurance industry.
"It's an impression that helps account for the feeling of many in Washington's populous Virginia suburbs, 100 long miles to the north, that more than geography divides them from the seat of state government, which takes their tax dollars and seems to give too little in return.
Swamped by more than 8,000 consumer complaints last year and anxious to appear to be giving a sympathetic ear, the Virginia Insurance Bureau, a branch of the powerful State Corporation Commission, recently installed a toll-free hotline for callers with insurance problems.
Yet talking to Richmond by telephone from, say, Alexandria, can be like talking to the moon. When the same reporter recently called a state insurance complaint inspector at his Richmond office, the reporter opened the conversation with, "Hi, how are you?"
"Well," drawled the voice at the other end, "I think I'll make it through the day." Not quite the image of regulatory fever.
A visit to G.I. Johnson's inner sanctum only reinforces the sense of a state government left dozing in the hot Southern sun. Beige walls, a linoleum floor and a heavy, outdated wooden desk give the air of a place where changes come slowly. Through a single window in need of washing, the James River flows sluggishly past the one-time capital of the Confederacy.
Johnson, a man whose humor tends to the bone dry, sits unsimilingly beneath the only piece of art, a poster showing a gorilla with the caption, "To know me is to love me."
Not that fading paint and flip Southernisms tell the whole story about insurance regulation in Virginia.
The bureau has a staff of 86 and an annual budget of $3 million. A computer system designed to radically up-grade some bureau functions is expected next year. The current insurance commissioner, Jay Newman, a 38-year-old native of Florida, is credited by himself and others with pushing -- although slowly -- for legislative reforms. According to a 1979 report by the General Accounting Office, many states ecert less effort than Virginia to police insurance sales and service.
Yet Johnson's investigators -- the people who look into serious allegations of agent misconduct -- number only three. All are based in Richmond and take to the road during the week. They visit a fraction of the people who have filed complaints and lack time to seek out possible violations on their own.
Their training is "on the job" says the garrulous Johnson.
There is no branch office in Northern Virginia or anywhere else in the state. The investigators return to Richmond on weekends not only because they live there but because that is where the bureau files are.
So the entire operation is Richmond-centered, despite the acknowledgement of bureau officials that Northern Virginia, Tidewater and the Roanoke area, along with Richmond and its suburbs, account for the bulk of the complaints.
Among the bulging complaint files, which are closed to the public and press by SCC policy, are some stories of genuine hardship. "You can almost see the tears on the page on some of them," says one investor.
Yet the licenses of only nine insurance agents were revoked in 1979 by action of the bureau, and relatively few cases are referred to local prosecutors on grounds of consumer fraud. This is partly because the Richmond bureau is understaffed and partly because fraud is hard to prove unless there are witnesses and written documentation.
It also may be that in a pro--business state such as Virginia, the primary interest of insurance companies and regulators alike is restitution of money lost or stolen, not prosecution of the alleged offender.
Fairfax County prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., whose office handles three to four insurance fraud cases a year, says that typically, if a company gets its money back, "that's the end of it The company wants to drop all charges."
State insurance regulators apparently share the same philosophy. In several recent cases in which Northern Virginia consumers complained of alleged wrongdoing in insurance dealings, Virginia officials took a hand in expediting settlements. But in each case they failed to look into possible disciplinary proceedings against the agents or companies involved.
"That's the third time I've complained to Richmond about my insurance," said one disgruntled Springfield woman. "And it's the third time I've gotten nothing."