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Calif. sues 4 major insurers

Kickbacks for contracts alleged

SAN DIEGO -- Four major insurance companies paid a broker tens of millions of dollars in hidden kickbacks in exchange for winning contracts with some of the largest US companies, California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi charged yesterday.

A lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court names MetLife Inc., Prudential Financial Inc., Cigna Corp., and UnumProvident Corp. The suit also names Universal Life Resources Inc., which brokers employee-benefit plans and insurance coverage on behalf of companies such as Safeway Inc., Intel Corp., Northrop Grumman, and other Blue Chip names.

Garamendi said he has agreed to drop the charges against Universal Life, based in San Diego, in exchange for "full and timely" cooperation in the investigation of the four insurance companies.

Paul Salvaty, an attorney for Cigna, said he does not believe the company violated any laws or regulations. He also questioned why Garamendi agreed to cut a deal with Universal Life before completing his investigation.

Prudential spokesman Bob DeFillippo said the company has not been served with papers yet and has no comment. The other companies did not return phone calls seeking a response. Universal Life also had not called back.

The legal salvo comes less than a week after New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued Universal Life, alleging that it pocketed millions a year in hidden payments from insurers and from charges on clients' unsuspecting workers.

Garamendi characterized the San Diego lawsuit as an early step in a wide-ranging investigation of the insurance industry that involves regulators across the country.

"We are in the opening pages of a very long and very sordid story," Garamendi told reporters. "We're going right up the ladder and we'll see where it ends."

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