If there’s one lesson that John Oxendine should have learned by now, it’s that cars and politics don’t mix.
Georgia’s insurance commissioner, who is hard at work on a 2010 campaign for governor, has had more than his share of misfortune caused by his involvement with official state vehicles.
Shortly after he first took office as insurance commissioner in 1995, Oxendine ran his state-issued vehicle off the road and crashed into some trees in Gwinnett County, causing damages estimated at $17,000. He told police that he had swerved the car to avoid hitting a deer.
A few years later, when he was at the wheel of a state car equipped with blue lights and a siren (Oxendine also serves as the state fire marshal), he had the lights flashing and was weaving through traffic on Interstate 285 when he crashed into a pickup truck. As a result of this accident, it cost nearly $7,000 to repair the truck and the Crown Victoria was totaled at a cost to taxpayers of $18,000.
"People go years and years without a situation, and then have strings of bad luck," Oxendine was quoted in media accounts at the time. "Accidents are accidents."
Oxendine claimed that this particular accident happened because he was rushing to get to his capitol office after a fire alarm had forced an evacuation of the building. The truthfulness of that statement was investigated by both the GBI and the attorney general’s office.
Investigators later concluded that Oxendine had used his emergency blue light on several occasions to get around traffic and avoid being late to social functions, including one dinner engagement with his son.
These "repeated misuses" of emergency equipment prompted Attorney General Thurbert Baker to recommend that Oxendine’s emergency privileges be revoked.
"Every time you flip on that blue light, you can potentially create a situation of danger out there on the highway," Baker said, adding that with Oxendine "there clearly seems to be a pattern of abuse."
Oxendine subsequently removed the blue lights and sirens from his cars and requested that his permits be "deactivated." The state Board of Public Safety voted formally in 2001 to rescind his permits to operate emergency lights and sirens. Newspaper columnists also started referring to the insurance commissioner as "Crash" Oxendine.
You would think that after two high-profile accidents Oxendine would go out of his way to avoid any other incidents with state vehicles. But no. In 2003, Oxendine spent $25,322 in taxpayer funds on yet another Crown Victoria, including $6,363 for extras like leather seats, a CD player and a "pursuit suspension" package. This purchase occurred after he had been instructed not to buy the vehicle because of the state’s budget problems.
After reviewing the circumstances surrounding the vehicle purchase, the state inspector general’s office reported: "Commissioner Oxendine’s actions were in blatant disregard for established authority. When informed that he would not be allowed to purchase his automobile, his response was, in general, ‘Try and stop me."
Oxendine eventually reimbursed the state for the vehicle but also issued this defiant statement: "I have stated publicly my disagreement with the report’s findings of fact and conclusions. Although this office is not bound by the opinion of the Office of Inspector General, I have decided to purchase this vehicle personally and donate it to the Georgia Department of Insurance to finally resolve this matter and demonstrate this office’s commitment to fiscal responsibility."
As he gets deeper into the 2010 governor’s race, it appears that Oxendine has retained his taste for high-priced transportation. His initial disclosure report shows that Oxendine spent $36,933 from his campaign account on June 30 to buy what was described as a "campaign auto." The vehicle was identified as a 2007 GMC Denali, a luxury SUV that can cost as much as $58,785 when new.
Oxendine’s aides say the purchase and use of the SUV will be in accord with all the applicable campaign finance laws, but you can bet that one of Oxendine’s critics will, at some point, try to file an ethics complaint and stir up a controversy about it.
Since the insurance commissioner obviously likes those expensive cars, my advice to the other candidates in the governor’s race is this: buckle your seatbelts and check your rear-view mirror. You could be in for a bumpy ride.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at email@example.com .