Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon has received nearly $20,000 worth of free travel, lodging, meals and other amenities over the past 13 months from a national association with ties to industry, according to disclosure reports filed with the Louisiana Ethics Administration.

Through his affiliation, Donelon, a Republican from Metairie, has also been afforded an American Express card and, on occasions, international travel and accommodations like suites. Some of the funding involved comes from taxpayers and the insurance industry.

Donelon says he has accumulated so much travel — 41 days total since March 2011 — because he’s serving as president-elect of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, meaning he takes over the top post in 2013. Donelon says it’s an unpaid position and that he’ll be the first NAIC president from Louisiana.

“It’s just like the National Governors Association or the National Association of Attorneys General,” Donelon says. He was interviewed by phone Wednesday while standing outside of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He’s currently on a trip sponsored by NAIC, which commenced in Nicaragua and is wrapping up in the nation’s capital.

Similar disclosures for Gov. Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, however, don’t show the same level of sponsorships as Donelon. The insurance commissioner agreed that his travels stand out. “It’s a unique situation,” he says.

NAIC has been described over the years as being pro-industry, and Donelon says he does meet with representatives from insurance companies during the association’s gatherings, as well as with regulators from around the country.

As for where the money comes from to fund NAIC, the association describes its operating revenues as a mix of taxpayer money offered by participating states — about 3 percent of its budget — and payments for services from the insurance industry. Other sources make up its budget, too.

Dr. Pearson Cross, a political science professor at UL Lafayette, says it’s impossible for regulators to ignore the industries they oversee. And while there have been concerns aired recently over groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, it’s difficult to prove there’s any actual wrongdoing involved.

“There’s potential for corruption here, but unless you can document influence over a particular official, there’s not much there,” Cross says. “Given that the commissioner is slated to become president of the association, this is probably just their way of getting him ready for the role.”

Donelon says the situation sounds cushier than it really is. For example, when he has been provided with a suite for lodging, he said it usually doubles as meeting room for the association. And all charges on his NAIC America Express card are reported to the Ethics Administration. As for international travel, Donelon maintains he has to initially pay out of pocket, then report it to the state, which is then reimbursed by NAIC.

Plus, he argued that it’s all more work than play. On the day he was interviewed, he was meeting with the new federal insurance officer and some representatives from the National Flood Insurance Program. That same day he planned to visit with “members of our local congressional delegation.”

In some cases, NAIC brings together stakeholders to create model legislation. Donelon says he has also played a role in advising foreign nations on how to approach their own insurance challenges.

While Donelon says he shelled out roughly $4,000 for his current trip to Nicaragua, the latest disclosure report he filed came last month. It included $2,902.64 worth of sponsorships for hotel, flight, baggage, parking and ground transportation.

The trip brought Donelon to Washington, D.C., a common meeting place, during the period of March 1-3. While there, he attended an officers meeting and a series of symposiums, according to the disclosure.

Here are a few other examples of Donelon’s most recent sponsored travels:
– The National Association of Insurance Commissioners Conference; Miami, Fla.; Feb. 3-6; $1,815.38 for transportation and lodging
– The National Association of Registered Agents and Brokers Officer Meeting; Washington, D.C.; Jan. 24-25; $1,020.94 for transportation and lodging
– The International Association of Insurance Supervisors; Miami Beach, Fla.; Jan. 17-18; $2,142 for lodging and transportation
– The National Association of Insurance Commissioners; Washington, D.C.; Dec. 6-8; $1,596 for lodging and transportation

As for all of his other trips, here’s a look at what Donelon reported to the Ethics Administration between March 2011 and December 2011:
– March 2011: $239; Miami, Fla.; five days
– April 2011: $886.36; Indian Wells, Calif.; two days
– April 2011: $1,000; Austin, Texas; one day
– June 2011: $1,022.40; Washington, D.C.; one day
– June 2011: $927; Washington, D.C.; three days
– June 2011: $115.09; Charlotte, N.C.; two days
– July 2011: $115.81; Kansas City, Mo.; one day
– August 2011: $214.33; Minneapolis, Minn.; one day
– August: 2011: $1,907.15; Jersey City, N.J.; two days
– September 2011: $513.60; Des Moines, Iowa; three days
– October 2011: $1,378.25; Washington, D.C.; one day
– October 2011: $1,386.01; Washington, D.C.; five days
– December 2011: $612.76; Key West, Fla.; two days
– December 2011: $117; Washington, D.C.; two days

This story first appeared on The Political Desk, a website outgrowth of The Jefferson Report begun by Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby as a nonpartisan exposé of waste and corruption in Louisiana politics. Ind contributing writer Jeremy Alford is The Political Desk’s lead writer.

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