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Utah legislator wants changes to securities regulation

Published January 1, 2013 2:38 pm

Politician who locked horns with regulators wants to revamp division.
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A state legislator who has clashed with securities regulators for years wants to remove the division from the Department of Commerce and put it under the state agency that regulates insurance.

Rep. Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, said the move makes sense because there is overlap between the two fields and it would let the regulators who oversee the profession coordinate their work.

"What I'm trying to do is take the Division of Securities out of the Department of Commerce because I don't think that's where it needs to be. I don't think that's where it belongs," Bird said. "Why don't we take the Division of Securities out of the Department of Commerce and put it in the Department of Insurance where these guys can talk and communicate and work on things that they need to work on together?"

A spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce said Bird has mentioned his plan to move the division but she hasn't seen specific legislation.

"We are opposed to what he's verbally said he was going to submit," said spokeswoman Jennifer Bolton. "In the future we will be able to spell out the specifics of our opposition."

Laura Polacheck, a member of the commission that oversees the division, said Utah has lax regulation on insurance products and, because of the susceptibility to fraud, securities need more regulation and a clear distinction for consumers between insurance products and securities.

"It could be a race to the bottom for regulation" of securities, she said. "Given the amount of fraud in Utah, you would think you would want to make sure you have as much oversight of securities as possible."

Bird acknowledges that he could be in for a battle over his bill.

"There's powers that be, and I'm not going to be specific, who don't want to lose any part of their turf, and this has the potential to do that," he said.

Bird, who is an insurance salesman, said that, as it stands now, in order to sell universal life insurance policies or variable annuities, brokers have to have both a securities and insurance license.

Bird has also been a vocal critic of leadership at the securities division, which he has said has been overzealous and heavy-handed in the way it wields its power.

In 2007, Bird asked for a legislative audit of the securities division, at the request of three of those investigated by the regulators, including one of Bird's colleagues in the insurance industry.

The audit found cases were handled in an inconsistent manner, there were staff conflicts, and a lack of policies to guide the division's actions. The audit also said the division's actions could be considered intimidating and criticized the division for publicizing enforcement actions before they were adjudicated.

Earlier this month, Bird and Sen. Howard Stephenson were critical of the department during a legislative hearing. Stephenson wants the division to remove enforcement actions from Internet search engines during the period covered by the audit. The request came from one of Stephenson's constituents, embarrassed that a search of his name yields a settlement for making misleading claims in a sales pitch to seniors.

And Bird suggested a follow-up audit may be in order to see if problems persisted at the division.

But Bird said his legislation isn't an act of retribution against the Commerce Department.

"I don't know if it's particularly trying to get back at a department or a department head. This just makes sense," Bird said. "Are we going to get the votes to pass it? I don't know. We'll see. It's going to be a fight, no question about it."

Securities isn't the only division in Commerce where a change could be sought.

During his campaign, incoming Attorney General John Swallow was recorded telling a potential donor in trouble with the Division of Consumer Protection that he planned to move those responsibilities out of Commerce and into the Attorney General's Office after he was elected.

Critics said that would weaken the state's consumer protection watchdogs and that the conversation with a businessman under investigation by the division in the context of a potential political fundraiser was inappropriate.

No legislation has been introduced to make such a change and a spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert said at the time that he wants consumer protection to stay put.

gehrke@sltrib.com; Twitter: @RobertGehrke






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