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Insurance commissioner drove across the country to meetings

by Staff

N.C. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, right, at the Portales (N.M.) Fire Department on Aug. 2, 2019.

N.C. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, right, at the Portales (N.M.) Fire Department on Aug. 2, 2019.

N.C. Department of Insurance

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NC Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey

North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey cast himself as opposed to “good ol boy” politics before taking office in 2017. But exclusive News & Observer reporting has revealed multiple ways that he has accommodated friends and political allies. Read more of The N&O’s ongoing coverage here.

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Unlike most Council of State members, N.C. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey has opted to drive thousands of miles across much of the country to attend conferences and meetings.

Travel records for Causey released to The News & Observer show no flights to any destinations over five years, only road trips to places as far away as Park City, Utah, which is 2,000 miles west of Causey’s Greensboro home, and a 30-hour drive. Five road trips took Causey through New Mexico.

Records also often show different NCDOI employees accompanying him. Causey and those employees charged hotel stays and meal costs on the road to and from these long-distance destinations.

Causey was accompanied on at least two of these trips with a longtime friend the commissioner hired as a part-time driver who is classified as a “deputy secretary/commissioner” making $44 an hour.

The insurance commissioner has also rented vehicles for some of these trips at public expense.

Causey, 73, a Republican first elected in 2016, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed about his out-of-state travel. As he left a Council of State meeting Jan. 9, he said he was too busy to talk with a reporter. But asked why he was driving instead of flying, he said “because it’s cheaper.”

“We’re a self-funded agency and we watch every penny for the folks of North Carolina,” Causey said.

Records provided to The N&O are incomplete, so they are difficult to compare with flight estimates. Asked how it saves money, Causey responded: “Go figure it out, we’ve done the math. It’s right much cheaper.”

Asked if he would share that math, Causey said he would at a later time.

Causey’s cross-country road trips

NC Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey has taken at least 12 out-of-state road trips since 2018, according to travel records released to The N&O. Rather than flying directly to various conferences and meetings, Causey took lengthy trips by vehicle, with repeated visits to a small city in New Mexico. Map by Sohail Al-Jamea and Susan Merriam

A closer look at road trips

Between March 2018 and July 2023, Causey took 12 out-of-state road trips funded by DOI, according to travel records released to The News & Observer. These trips, which also brought Causey to New Hampshire and Florida, often followed inefficient routes and included repeated visits to a small city in New Mexico.

In 2018, for example, Causey reported a nine-day, 3,915-mile road trip to Park City for a National Association of Insurance Commissioners roundtable. The trip brought him from Greensboro to Park City with stops in Missouri and Wyoming on the way out.

That suggests a direct route, according to Google Maps. But on the way back, Causey traveled south through New Mexico before heading east. Google Maps shows that would have added another 230 miles to the trip.

Timothy Ennis, then a program coordinator making roughly $50,000 a year, was listed as a co-driver on that trip on an Enterprise Rent-A-Car receipt.

Causey’s travel records show he was personally reimbursed about $2,000 for that trip.

Causey has traveled to or through New Mexico five times since 2018, spending the night in the town of Portales on at least four of those trips, according to state records.

No insurance officials’ gatherings appear to have been held in this town, located in eastern New Mexico near the Texas border. It has a population of about 12,000 according to the 2020 census.

For three out of the four stops in Portales, Causey noted in travel records that he was either visiting fire departments or meeting with emergency management officials. For the 2018 trip, he noted he stopped during a trip to a “fraud conference.”

During one stop in 2019, an NCDOI social media account reported Causey visiting the Portales Fire Department, “studying its EMS, Fire Suppression and Investigation methods to bring back to teach at the newly established Emergency Training Center in Stanly County.”

Portales Fire Chief Timothy Cathey said he recalls one time Causey had visited between 2019 and 2023, though he said he didn’t know exactly when. When Causey visited, he “wanted to tour the station, look at the trucks and visit. He shared some stories, we shared some stories,” Cathey said.

Cathey said he wasn’t aware of any special relationship between Causey and his fire department. “I do know that he has family that’s originally from Causey, New Mexico — which is southeast of Portales,” said Cathey, who said he did not know if Causey still has family nearby.

The village of Causey, which sits about 33 miles from Portales, is home to only 69 people, says the 2020 census.

A hotel receipt for an August 2022 trip to Portales showed that Causey booked three rooms for 12 people for one night at a local Holiday Inn. The total bill, which Causey submitted for reimbursement, was $403.56. No materials released by his agency explain why that many people would be present on Causey’s trip.

He did not respond to a request for comment about that trip.

State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor said he was unaware of Causey bringing back any information from his travels to Portales. Causey recently sought to fire Taylor after state lawmakers moved the office out from under the insurance department and stripped the commissioner of the state fire marshal title.

More Causey trips

In 2022, Causey took a weeklong car trip to Mississippi, Texas and New Mexico, in which a different purpose is listed for each trip, ranging from meeting the Mississippi insurance commissioner to visiting regional fire departments and an unspecified “community meeting.” For this trip, Causey was reimbursed over $4,300.

In total, Causey drove over 20,000 miles on out-of-state trips between 2018 and mid-2023, receiving nearly $15,000 in reimbursement for mileage, food, hotel stays and more. Deputy Commissioner John Cable, who oversees the Bail Bonding Division, traveled with Causey for five trips, with the department reimbursing him for nearly $5,500 in expenses. On one of those trips Cable flew home.

These numbers don’t take into account other trips Causey took that were funded by the NAIC. Causey was reimbursed an additional $11,400 by the NAIC between 2017 and 2023 for trips to Orlando, Milwaukee, Tampa and more, according to those records.

NAIC charges each state yearly dues, assessing nearly $58,000 in fees to North Carolina in 2023, according to the association’s annual budget.

A different approach

Causey is one of 10 statewide elected officials on the Council of State. Spokespersons for several of them say their bosses fly on long-distance trips when it’s the most efficient way to go.

The only other Council of State member who reported only taking road trips is Republican Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson, who drove to two conferences in his first term, one to the Washington, D.C., area and the other to Saratoga Springs, New York, his spokeswoman Meredith Watson said.

Dobson, who is not running for re-election, is not planning to take more out-of-state trips before his term ends this year, she added.

N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, a Democrat, said she flies to out-of-state conferences when it makes sense from a time and cost standpoint.

She said she did not see how it made sense to spend days driving to and from a conference, especially with a staff member along for the ride.

“I would not put the state through the expense of two rooms a night,” she said.

This story was originally published January 16, 2024, 5:55 AM.

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Kyle Ingram is a politics reporter for the News & Observer. He reports on the legislature, voting rights and more in North Carolina politics. He is a graduate of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.

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