- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III hailed Christopher Lawson as an “incredible and experienced” leader last year when he named the Bowie businessman as a director helping to oversee the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC).

Atop Mr. Lawson’s list of credentials: his role as president and principal broker for Insuraty Inc., “a full service employee benefits firm offering health insurance, life insurance” and other services, according to Mr. Baker’s 2011 announcement.

But a check of Maryland records shows that Insuraty hasn’t been licensed to sell insurance by the Maryland Insurance Administration since 2006. What’s more, the company’s corporate status was forfeited in 2009. Its registered agent also resigned in 2010, records show.

In an interview and subsequent email exchange, Mr. Lawson described the forfeiture of his company’s corporate status as a simple mistake. He also said he planned to update information on his official biography to reflect the fact that Insuraty isn’t an insurance company but rather a marketing firm, though he pointed out that as an individual, he is licensed by the Maryland Insurance Administration.

“I’m certainly not misleading anybody,” he said.

Still, even if the state of Maryland officially doesn’t recognize Insuraty - which was based out of Mr. Lawson’s home - elected officials happily do, accepting thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the company despite its defunct status.

In several instances, the donations from Insuraty have come on the same day, in the same amount and to the same politicians as contributions from D.C. contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson and his associates. Mr. Thompson resigned his posts atop a District accounting firm and health insurance company - both were once listed as clients on Insuraty’s website - after a raid of his office and home earlier this year. Beneficiaries of the company’s largesse have included the campaigns of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, records show.

Donations flowed despite judgment

Along with Insuraty, Mr. Lawson, whose biography on the WSSC website lists him as a chairman to Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown’s campaign, has made large personal donations over the years to Maryland and D.C. political campaigns, even as he faces a more than $20,000 credit card judgment in 2007, according to court records.

Since the judgment in the collections lawsuit was filed by American Express, Mr. Lawson has given more than $27,000 in donations - which is about what he was being sued for by the credit card company.

Mr. Lawson said the judgment stemmed from a former employee’s use of the card, but he said the liability fell to him because the card was under his name. He also said he arranged to make payments through an attorney in the case.

But court records and attorneys involved in the case, which was filed in Prince George’s County, confirm that the total debt hasn’t been paid off.

All told, Mr. Lawson, his wife and Insuraty combined have given more than $100,000 in campaign contributions to candidates in federal, D.C. and Maryland political campaigns since 2001, though the bulk of the donations were made after 2005, records show.

Mr. Baker’s nonprofit inaugural committee, Path to Greatness, also lists Insuraty as a sponsor and Michelle Haywood, Mr. Lawson’s wife, as a founding director.

Many of the donations from Mr. Lawson, his wife and Insuraty have benefited campaigns in the District. Half of the political contributions made by the Bowie couple and business - or about $54,000 - have gone to D.C. government campaigns.

Mr. Lawson and Insuraty both gave $2,000 checks to Mr. Gray on the same day in June 2010, when the mayor’s campaign also received donations from entities tied to political operative Eugenia Harris, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations this week.

In court documents, federal prosecutors said two companies tied to Harris, Belle International and Details International, gave to a candidate running for mayor in Washington in 2010, and that Harris also had friends and associates donate money after she promised to reimburse them with money from an unnamed conspirator widely believed to be Mr. Thompson.

Mr. Lawson said his contributions were perfectly legal.

“Every fundraiser I’ve been a part of, I’ve made that choice myself to participate and contribute,” he said in an interview. “That was my personal decision to make contributions.”

There’s also no law that says like-minded companies and people can’t get together and give maximum contributions to the same politicians at the same fundraising event. That happens almost every day in Washington as members of Congress raise money for re-election campaigns in town houses, offices and restaurants.

But the donations from contributors giving on the same day, in the same amount and to the same politicians as Mr. Thompson and his associates have been subject to sharper scrutiny now that federal authorities are investigating his fundraising activities.

In an email last week, Mr. Lawson said he has supported only candidates he believes in - not because of any requests from Mr. Thompson or anyone else.

“I decide how I spend the money I make,” he wrote, adding that “every American has the right” to do so.

Despite forfeited status

Mr. Lawson’s role as president of Insuraty has been cited again and again in recent years. In documents concerning a $300 million bond offering last year, the WSSC highlighted the background of each of its directors, listing Mr. Lawson as president and principal of Insuraty, despite the company’s forfeited corporate status years earlier.

But it was hardly the only time Mr. Lawson has been referred to as president of the company.

When Mr. Baker’s office announced Mr. Lawson’s WSSC appointment in 2011, a news release from Prince George’s described Insuraty as “a full service employee benefits firm offering health insurance, life insurance, retirement plans and flexible spending account plans to small, mid-size and large group employers.”

Made aware of the discrepancies by a reporter, a spokesman for Mr. Baker said his administration accepted and understood Mr. Lawson’s explanation of issue.

“Chris Lawson, who was recently elected chair of the WSSC by his peers, was chosen to serve on the board of WSSC because of his experience in the business world as well his experience working in the community,” Mr. Baker’s spokesman Scott Peterson wrote in an email response to questions. “He has proven to be a strong proponent of the interests of WSSC rate payers and the County Executive is proud of his service on the WSSC board.”

The WSSC website as of this week also describes Mr. Lawson as president and principal of Insuraty. A spokesman for the WSSC referred questions about Insuraty to Mr. Lawson, whose website as of this week described the company as a regional employee benefits brokerage and consulting firm. Links on the website include “health insurance,” “life insurance” and “disability.”

While the company’s license expired in 2006, Mr. Lawson pointed out that as an individual he’s never had any infractions.

“Obviously, I didn’t pay close enough attention to the language,” Mr. Lawson said when asked about statements describing his company as offering insurance. “We’ll get it fixed. I’m not trying to hold myself out to be something I’m not.”

In an email, he added, “I’m thinking the [Maryland] Insurance Administration would have easily told me to change something about what I’m doing if it was up to no good.”

Maryland Insurance Administration records confirm that, as an individual, Mr. Lawson is licensed and in good standing, but as a company, Insuraty is described as “inactive” with an expiration date listed of Feb. 3, 2006.

Speaking generally and not specifically about Insuraty or any other company, Vivian D. Laxton, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Insurance Administration, said state regulators investigate when they learn “that a business entity may be unlawfully holding itself out to the public as a Maryland-licensed insurance producer.”

“If, after completing its investigation, the producer enforcement unit concludes that a business entity that does not have the required license to act as a Maryland insurance producer has solicited, procured or negotiated insurance policies or contracts … further action would be taken,” she said.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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