Thursday, March 4, 2021

Johnny Dollar: How a self-serving governor and a wretched justice system took down the man who built Alabama's most successful insurance company


Johnny Dollar: The Real Life Story of John Wayne Goff, as told to Patrick Mansell (Amazon and Kindle, 2021)

What is it like to spend eight years in federal prison because you were seen as a threat to an ethically challenged governor, a man you once supported? What is it like to build, from virtually nothing, the largest privately owned insurance company in Alabama -- only to see it crumble because of a governor whose main interests seemed to be servicing cronies and hiding his administration's ties to gambling interests? 

Those two questions run throughout Johnny Dollar: The Real Life Story of John Wayne Goff, a former Montgomery insurance executive. It's a stark, incisive, and unsettling account of the corruption that permeated Alabama's GOP-infested swamp in the first decade of the 2000s -- with Gov. Bob Riley in charge of a ship that seemed to enrich family members and political allies while seeking ruination for those who were perceived to be enemies.

Patrick Mansell, the author of 17 other books, tells the Goff story and proves to be an adept guide through a tale that winds from the halls of political power to the corporate boardroom to the dark corners of America's penal system. 

Goff made his mark in business, but he got his start in politics -- serving four years in various administrative capacities for Gov. George Wallace. In fact, Goff was working as an advance man in Oregon on the day Wallace was shot in Maryland while campaigning in the 1972 presidential race. 

A friendship with John Amos, a Georgia resident who was founder and president of AFLAC, set Goff on the path to a career in insurance. Goff followed the AFLAC model of offering low-premium life insurance through payroll deduction. He also borrowed an idea from New England Life, which was a mutual company owned by policyholders, not profit-orient stockholders. In essence, Goff focused on everyday people and products that were attractive to them. Writes Mansell:

It seemed most agents would break their necks to sign up a wealthy professional, a business executive, a lawyer, or a doctor and sell the $2-million policy. And then every other insurance agent in the area would hustle to take that business away. It was a dog-eat-dog market. But [Goff] focused on the average person, the nurse or teacher or government clerk,who was not as wealthy, and whose policies were smaller. And he could approach them through their employers and have their premiums paid through payroll deduction. That kind of policy had a very long life and was rarely canceled.

With his organization growing, Goff incorporated Goff Group in 1990, offering all insurance lines except automobile and homeowners. With a focus on worker's compensation, Goff Group became administrator for Alabama's risk pool, which generated $90 million a year in premium billings.

Along the way, Goff became a savvy investor and developer in real estate. One of his prized developments was White Hawk farm, which became a showplace for luxury living in the South. It also helped propel residential development on the perimeter of Montgomery. Goff eventually focused on the Gulf Coast and owned 16  properties in the area. 

By the 1990s, Goff Group had offices in seven states, plus Bermuda. Goff began to lease private airplanes for day trips to the various offices, eventually forming Goff Aviation, with a plane kept at Jet South in Birmingham. When Goff wasn't using the plane, Jet South rented it out for $1,000 an hour.

Cracks in Goff Group's foundation began to form when it aligned with a firm called Reliance Insurance Company of Philadelphia. Reliance formed a co-insurance relationship with Goff Group, but in 1999, the insurance commissioner of Pennsylvania placed the ole-line company (which dated to 1817) in receivership. Suddenly, John Goff''s company was at risk. 

A new company, ECS, stepped into the breach left by Reliance, and two subsidiaries (XL and Greenwich) of a French multinational firm entered the picture as reinsurers of worker's comp policies. The Goff Group's ability to originate business played a key role in the arrangement for ECS and XL/Greenwich. But ECS struggled to keep its books straight, leading XL/Greenwich to terminate its contract with the company. That, in turn, led ECS to cancel its agreement with Goff Group, cutting deeply into Goff's income stream. Alabama law firm Haskell Slaughter, sued ECS and XL on Goff's behalf, but in 2003, Goff had to begin laying off employees. 

Goff's troubles would grow exponentially when Bob Riley was declared the winner of the hotly disputed 2002 governor's race over Democratic incumbent Don Siegelman.

Goff supported Riley's bid for the governor's office and even allowed his campaign to use the company jet. That proved to be problematic. Writes Mansell:

Sometime after Riley's successful, if questionable, victory for the governorship, John learned from the captain of his plane, Bob Kent, that it had been used on two occasions to do turnarounds to Washington, D.C.. On the manifest, Bob Riley's name was listed as the lead passenger. Kent said that it was a full load with seven other passengers and very quick turnarounds both times. With Mike Scanlon as a close associate of Riley's, and a partner of Jack Abramoff, John surmised, based on conversations with Tommy Gallion, that his jet was used to help facilitate the meetings that resulted in $13 million in campaign contributions from a source (Jack Abramoff) for the Riley campaign from the Mississippi Choctaw Indians. No proof of this was was ever discovered. . . . [Goff] sent the Riley campaign an invoice for $25,000 for unauthorized use of his plane. By return mail, John received payments from Bob Riley for Governor Inc. for that expense.

The payoff for the Choctaw Indians . . . was a promise by Riley to work toward stamping out competition . . . by promoting legislation to limit gambling in Alabama.

John Goff, unwittingly, got caught in the GOP scam to oppose gambling in Alabama on "moral grounds." For that, Goff would pay a huge price.  

(To be continued)

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