Insurance commissioner pays friend & donor a high wage to drive him on state business

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Since N.C. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey took office in 2017, a longtime friend and campaign supporter has been driving him at public expense from his Greensboro home to his Raleigh office and as far away as Santa Fe, New Mexico, earning as much as $84,000 in one year.

Causey and other Insurance Department officials have described Roger Blackwell, 77, as a part-time driver who also provides security. But state personnel records give him a much loftier title that pays a wage higher than most state workers earn. He is listed as a part-time “Deputy Secretary/Commissioner I,” which allows him to be paid $44 an hour.

Blackwell acknowledged in a phone interview that he oversees no division and has no staff assigned to him, as others with that title do. He’s not listed as a top official on the agency’s website.

Blackwell and Causey say he’s worth the pay. His driving frees Causey to make phone calls and answer emails while he’s on the road, Blackwell said.

“Believe it or not, when he’s in the car on the road he’s doing work,” Blackwell said. “He’s returning emails, making calls that he couldn’t be doing driving himself. It’s like an office on wheels.”

After being briefed on this by The News & Observer, an expert on state government said he sees it differently, calling it a waste of money on a political ally that state lawmakers ought to scrutinize.

“It’s a political job,” said John Turcotte, who led the state legislature’s nonpartisan Program Evaluation Division for 14 years before lawmakers did away with it in 2021. “He’s being employed because he’s a friend of the commissioner’s.“

Blackwell’s wage translates to $91,520 a year if he worked full time, which is much more than what most state workers make. The median salary for the state’s roughly 59,000 employees is $56,252.

A pattern in Causey’s agency

Blackwell’s employment fits a pattern The News & Observer first reported in November where Causey has provided insurance department jobs to people with personal connections or political clout.

Causey’s regional operation over the years has included several such hires. He also gave one position to political ally John Woodard, who later admitted — after being paid nearly $295,000 over five years — that some of the job was “make work.”

John Woodard was terminated from the NC Insurance Department in July. He had been tasked with producing valuations of state buildings.
John Woodard was terminated from the NC Insurance Department in July. He had been tasked with producing valuations of state buildings.

The head of the state program overseeing temporary employment said he would look into Blackwell’s hiring after an N&O reporter brought it to his attention. Two of Causey’s opponents in the 2024 election have written to the state auditor and others asking state officials to look into Causey’s spending.

Causey, 73, is a Republican and a former lobbyist and insurance agency owner who was elected commissioner in 2016 on his fifth try. He declined to be interviewed about Blackwell’s job, spokesman Barry Smith said last week, without explaining why.

Approached before a Council of State meeting Jan. 9, Causey said he didn’t have time to take a reporter’s questions. But Blackwell “is worth his weight in gold,” he said.

Blackwell has long been active in the Republican Party in Randolph County and is an Archdale City Council member. He met Causey roughly 30 years ago when he made his first run for insurance commissioner in 1992, he said.

Since 1995 through 2020 he’s contributed $10,000 to Causey’s election campaigns. He is also a retired Allstate Insurance adjuster who works part-time as a Randolph County sheriff’s captain.

A different approach

It’s unusual for most Council of State members to have paid drivers take them to public meetings and events, let alone to and from their homes. The governor and lieutenant governor are provided drivers as part of security details.

Today, two of the seven other council members make limited use of drivers but both of them drive themselves to and from home, their spokespersons said.

In 2022, Attorney General Josh Stein began using a retired trooper to provide security and drive to events and added a second last year. The two retired troopers each work part time at $21.50 an hour for roughly 20 hours a week, said spokeswoman Laura Brewer. Stein, a Democrat, is running for governor and pays them out of his campaign for political events, she said.

In February, state schools Superintendent Catherine Truitt hired a temporary, part-time security officer who drives her to and from out-of-town events in North Carolina, paying that person $40 an hour as a “program coordinator VI,” her spokeswoman Blair Rhoades said. The person, who she identified as a retired law enforcement official, made $8,271 last year.

Truitt, a Republican, hired the former officer after “several incidents” during public appearances, including one where someone followed her to her car when she was alone, Rhodes said.

The five remaining members of the council have no state driver, their spokespeople said. That includes State Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson of McDowell County, Treasurer Dale Folwell of Winston-Salem, State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler of Guilford County, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and State Auditor Jessica Holmes, both of Raleigh.

Causey’s predecessor, Wayne Goodwin, didn’t have a driver or a security detail during his eight years in office, he said.

“I drove myself,” said Goodwin, a Democrat who was appointed Division of Motor Vehicles commissioner after Causey defeated him at the polls a second time in 2020.

Blackwell said he also does “odds and ends” for Causey. Asked for specifics, Blackwell said he helps Causey’s secretary plan his travels. He could only cite one unusual security-related incident while driving Causey — confronting a man who had been following Blackwell and Causey. The man said he thought he was following a U.S. Marshal’s vehicle.

How Blackwell landed high pay

The insurance department requested creating Blackwell’s position through the Office of State Human Resources’ Temporary Solutions program. Launched in 1986, the program helps state agencies recruit workers for temporary assignments. Agencies choose who they want to hire and for how many hours, but the program checks worker applications to make sure they have relevant experience and qualifications.

Typically, temporary employees can only work up to 11 months. But since Blackwell is retired, that requirement is waived, said Devon Freed, a spokeswoman for the human resources office.

None of the information given to the office specified that Blackwell was to be Causey’s driver, which he confirmed has been his job all along.

In 2017, the state insurance department said it wanted to hire Blackwell under the classification of “administrative officer” to “provide law enforcement consultation services to the DOI Criminal Investigation Division as the Division develops its strategic plan for 2017 – 2020.” He was paid $35 an hour at first, records show.

In 2019, the department told Temporary Solutions it was promoting Blackwell to the position of “Insurance Criminal Investigator II,” to “facilitate meetings between Criminal Investigations and local law enforcement concerning insurance fraud or technical assistance to the law enforcement agency.”

“This position is part of our ongoing outreach to law enforcement, clerks of court and prosecutors,” the department told the human resources office in its written request. It also said the employee would work to raise awareness of NCDOI’s mission and help local agencies reduce insurance fraud, as well as serve as a liaison for the commissioner’s office, the Office of the State Fire Marshal and the department’s Criminal Investigations Division. Blackwell’s pay increased to $38 an hour.

Blackwell was promoted into the temporary position of deputy secretary/commissioner in January 2022. This time, the department did not give human resources a written description of Blackwell’s duties.

Records show his pay climbed dramatically, from $30,607 in 2017 to $84,138 in 2022. Last year he made $63,459 through Dec. 8. His yearly pay may have declined some because the department hired a second driver for Causey: Steve Myers, a former state trooper.

The department has not provided pay or work time information for Myers, other than saying he, too, is a part-time driver for Causey.

Blackwell said in a telephone interview that his workday typically starts by picking up Causey’s state-assigned 2023 Chevrolet Suburban SUV at a fire station in Archdale. Blackwell then picks Causey up at his home roughly 20 minutes away.

The NCDOI headquarters in Raleigh is a typical destination, Blackwell said, but Causey has spent some of his time criss-crossing the state. In 2020, for example, Causey visited dozens of volunteer fire departments across North Carolina handing out $5,000 checks from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina during that election year.

NC Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey presents an award of ‘heroism’ to 5-year-old Taylor Carroll who alerted her grandmother to smoke coming from their laundry room and the Angier-Black Rive Fire Department was able to contain the blaze, on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Angier, NC.
NC Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey presents an award of ‘heroism’ to 5-year-old Taylor Carroll who alerted her grandmother to smoke coming from their laundry room and the Angier-Black Rive Fire Department was able to contain the blaze, on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Angier, NC.

Causey also relies on Blackwell and other NCDOI officials to drive to out-of-state events, such as National Association of Insurance Commissioners meetings. Travel records obtained by The N&O through a public records request show Causey has driven rather than flown to events as far away as Park City, Utah.

The insurance department has not provided Blackwell’s travel expense records, which The N&O has requested repeatedly since Aug. 1. But Causey’s travel records show that Blackwell accompanied him on 2018 trips to Atlanta and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Blackwell said he also traveled with Causey to an NAIC meeting in Florida last month.

Santa Fe is a 24-hour drive from Greensboro, according to Google maps. Causey’s travel records for the trip show hotel stays for three nights on the road and two days at an unspecified “fraud conference.” Blackwell said he had his own hotel room for the trip. He also said he was paid for an eight-hour day while Causey attended the conference.

Blackwell acknowledged that he has down time on the job during short and long trips but said he is paid no more than eight hours a day on long trips.

That may explain why he has earned nearly full-time pay for part-time work. If he had worked 40-hour weeks for all of 2022, for example, his pay would have totalled only about $7,400 more than $84,138 he received.

Temporary Solutions’ manager to review hire

Joe Gilroy is the program manager overseeing Temporary Solutions for the Office of State Human Resources. State records show 3,765 full- and part-time employees in the program. If they all worked full-time, the median salary would be $45,011.

Gilroy said state personnel laws, which shield information such as the job performance of state employees, prevented him from discussing Blackwell’s employment at length. The law, however, includes a provision allowing agencies to provide more personnel information to show they are operating with integrity.

But he said given the information The N&O provided about Blackwell’s work, he would be checking to see if he met the criteria for his job classification.

Three job classifications are typically used to hire drivers, said Freed, the state human resources spokeswoman. The maximum full time pay for the highest of the three is $58,226.

Democrat David Wheeler of Spruce Pine is running for insurance commissioner, and he has asked the state auditor, state treasurer and state budget director to investigate Causey’s use of a state vehicle to travel from his Greensboro home to the state headquarters in Raleigh.

“I’ve reviewed all his vehicle use logs and he has not logged any miles as personal despite using the vehicle to drive from his home in Guilford County to his office in Raleigh repeatedly,” Wheeler said in his letter to state officials.

According to state law, “every individual who uses a state-owned passenger motor vehicle, pickup truck, or van to drive between the individual’s official work station and his or her home, shall reimburse the state for these trips.”

Causey’s official “duty station” is the Raleigh headquarters.

The N&O asked NCDOI to respond to the allegation in October, but were told by the department’s general counsel, John Hoomani, that “Mr. Wheeler has now filed a request for investigation with the state auditor’s office, among others. Therefore, until that issue has been resolved, the department will not respond to your questions.”

Former state Rep. Robert Brawley of Mooresville is challenging Causey in the primary, and he has asked the state auditor, attorney general and lawmakers who lead an oversight committee to look into the commissioner’s spending, based on The N&O’s reporting. Brawley also raised other questions about the insurance department’s operations.

Brawley noted in his request, and The N&O confirmed, that the insurance department hasn’t had a state audit in more than a decade.

Database editor David Raynor contributed to this report.