Insurance company apologizes for spying on clients at church support group

The president of an insurance company that hired private investigators to spy on clients during a church confessional issued a public apology Thursday.

That may not be enough. Georgia authorities said Thursday they are investigating the actions of Progressive Northern Insurance Co. detailed in an article Wednesday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine said he was appalled at the Wisconsin-based company’s actions and wanted to ensure Progressive is investigated and penalized, if appropriate.

“That conduct is something that will not be tolerated,” Oxendine said. “Companies that do that do not need to be writing business in Georgia.”

Progressive offered its apology in a statement posted on its Web site by the company’s president and CEO, Glenn Renwick. A spokesman said Thursday the company had nothing to add.

“Yesterday a story appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about an investigation authorized by Progressive people in August 2005,” the statement read. “When I read that story I was appalled and, frankly, didn’t believe that it could possibly be accurate. I have since learned that the essential facts in the story are correct. What the investigators and Progressive people involved in that case did was wrong — period. I personally want to apologize to anyone who was affected by this incident.”

The company has since adopted guidelines that would prohibit any investigator from lying about his or her identity or intent when gathering evidence on a claim, Renwick said. The company also now checks to ensure employees and contractors are following policy, he said.

“We know that we were wrong in this situation, and we take full responsibility for the mistakes that were made,” Renwick’s statement said.

The allegations stem from a lawsuit filed in Fulton County State Court last week.

A Henry County couple, Bill and Leandra Pitts, charged that Progressive hired private eyes to tail them as part of an investigation into injuries the couple said they sustained in a 2004 auto accident. The investigators, the Pitts’ said, sneaked into their church in August 2005 posing as prospective members. Then they talked their way into a private confessional meeting at a church member’s home in hopes that the Pittses might make an admission that would damage their case, which has since been settled.

The unusual tactic shocked and angered church members, who claimed they were violated. That touched off the lawsuit filed last week charging invasion of privacy, fraud and other misdeeds.

The couple’s lawyer was pleased by Thursday’s developments but remained cautious of what they might mean for his clients.

“They did everything they could to dig up dirt on my clients to save a buck,” Atlanta attorney Wayne Grant said. “Their interests are probably the same now. If they are truly regretful, they will have the chance to make it right.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday August 24, 2007.
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