NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Did Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron get special treatment when fraud allegations were first made against his insurance company two years ago? At the time, Ketron was still a state senator and now NewsChannel 5 Investigates has uncovered emails that raise a lot of questions about why the state didn't do more then.
Several weeks ago, when we began first investigating the latest round of allegations against Bill Ketron's insurance agency, we called him and he insisted he knew nothing about them. And he said, "I know the insurance commissioner and I'm going to call him and get to the bottom of this."
That got us wondering if he'd ever done that before. Turns out, he had.
"I head the insurance division that regulates all things insurance," Michael Humphreys told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
He is the number 2 guy at the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. And he insisted that a complaint filed with his department against Bill Ketron and his insurance agency two years ago was treated the same way they treat all complaints.
"So you're saying Senator Ketron did not get any special treatment nor did his daughter or this case," we asked him.
"Absolutely not," Humphreys replied.
But others aren't so sure.
"The state says they handled this case just like any other case. Do you believe that," we asked Andy Spears, Executive Director of the consumer watchdog group, Tennessee Citizen Action.
"No," Spears responded emphatically, adding, "He absolutely got special treatment."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained emails sent to and from some of the top managers at the state's Insurance Division after that complaint against Ketron and his agency was filed.
We showed them to Spears.
"If you look at these emails, there was a lot of effort to make sure that Senator Ketron was happy, that he was followed up with, that he was circled back to." Spears said.
At the time of the complaint, Ketron was not only a state senator, he was also a member of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee which is closely tied to the Commerce and Insurance Department.
"He has influence, direct influence over their budget, over their legislation and certainly was in a unique position to influence it," Spears explained.
In the complaint, filed in early 2017, a Smyrna business owner said she paid Universal International Insurance in 2016 nearly $12,000 and then discovered her policy had been canceled because it was never paid for. The business owner said Kelsey Ketron, the vice president of the agency and Bill Ketron's daughter, blamed it on "a mix up."
Later, the business owner said Kelsey tried to prove she had paid for the insurance by sending a copy of a check, but it was dated a year after the payment had been due.
When allegations like that are made, the Commerce and Insurance Department said it normally assigns the case to two sets of investigators, one to investigate fraud and the other to get the consumer's money back.
But that's not what happened in Ketron's case.
A consumer investigator reached out repeatedly to Kelsey, but the emails show she did "not respond to phone calls or email." Emails also show the insurance department's top lobbyist was actively involved, working behind the scenes, talking with both Senator Ketron and his legislative office, trying to get the matter resolved.
"You're saying there's nothing unusual about that," we asked Michael Humphreys.
"No," he replied emphatically, adding, "We can't have the employees reaching out to legislators at random without bringing in a central point of contact to maintain the understanding of the outreach."
And then there's the email that Humphreys himself wrote.
It begins by saying, "I've spoken to Senator Ketron a few times today."
Humphreys sent that email to his top managers and the department's lobbyist, describing how Ketron had called him to discuss the complaint. Humphreys went on in that email to describe the conversations he'd had with Ketron about the case and how the two of them discussed how Ketron could resolve it.
Andy Spears wondered how many other people could do that.
"You can't call Michael Humphreys and say, 'Hey, can you help me out," Spears suggested.
He said this was clearly preferential treatment.
"And the concern over and over again is let's protect Bill Ketron and his daughter and not let's protect these consumers," he added.
As soon the the business owner got her money back from the Ketrons, the Insurance Division sent a letter to her, saying they were closing the case. It was never assigned to a fraud investigator and there is no evidence Kelsey Ketron was ever questioned about working without a license.
"You have an allegation of fraud. You have someone working without a license. And your department did nothing to pursue those actions," NewsChannel 5 Investigates said to Assistant Commissioner Michael Humphreys.
"Right. And I'm not able to get into the substance of complaints as we discussed," he replied.
Humphreys said he couldn't say more because by law, insurance complaints and investigations are confidential and not open to the public. Andy Spears has his own theory.
"Why are we not investigating for fraud here? Is it because Bill Ketron is a state senator and is on an influential committee and can oversee legislation? That's the only explanation I can come up with," Spears opined.
"You realize how this probably looks to some people?" we asked the Insurance Division's Humphreys.
"I realize how you're suggesting that it looks. And quite honestly, it absolutely was not the case. We don't care who Senator Ketron was, quitely honestly," Humphreys responded.
Because Tennessee law makes insurance complaints confidential, we don't know how many other complaints may have been filed against the Ketrons and how they were handled.
However, Andy Spears says is that if the state had done what it should have two years ago, there might not be the two new allegations of fraud against Ketron's agency.
Michael Humphreys' office is now going after Kelsey Ketron, based on one of those new cases. As we've reported, they've accused her of fraudulent business practices and are seeking to revoke her license.
For the record, Humphreys said that Bill Ketron has not called him about the latest troubles facing his insurance agency and daughter.