The Velvet Hand of Justice

Bankers and insurers are on a crime spree. It just isn't called that in Ohio.

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Farmers Insurance fit nicely within their crosshairs. In Cleveland and Toledo, housing activists had a white guy call for a quote on home insurance, then had a black or Latino guy request a quote on a similar dwelling. The test was repeated hundreds of times. In half the cases, Farmers offered the minority guy an inferior policy or didn't bother to call back at all.

So in 1999, the Toledo Fair Housing Center filed a class-action suit, and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found probable cause that Farmers was discriminating. A few weeks ago, the company agreed to pay $4.3 million to make it all go away.

A giddy moment it was for housing activists: It marked the largest settlement in commission history, and the entire sum would be pumped into low-income rehab and development. "This isn't a settlement where lawyers are making tons of money and people are getting 50-cent rebates," says Diane Citrino, a senior attorney with Housing Advocates Inc. in Cleveland. Farmers also agreed to cease and desist on screwing people -- at least in this particular manner.

But while the victors have reason for joy, so does Farmers.

Four million seems like a lot of loot. But placed in the perspective of Farmers' net income -- a record $725 million last year --it's equivalent to a guy who makes $20,000 being fined 119 bucks. In other words, it's the corporate version of a speeding ticket. And tickets aren't exactly deterrents to future speeding. The fact is, Farmers' behavior appears to be the norm rather than the exception.

The Toledo center has already reached accords with Allstate, State Farm, Nationwide, and Liberty Mutual, says Development Manager Michael Marsh. "They were all doing the same thing." Two weeks ago, the center joined a suit against Prudential. Housing Advocates has six outstanding complaints against Greater Cleveland agencies.

Yet insurance geeks, being the blunt-instrument thinkers they are, weren't the first to find fun and profit in prejudice. Bankers were early pioneers. "Where we've done testing on banks, what we found was the whites had twice as much time spent on them as Hispanics," says Citrino. "Whites got follow-up 100 percent of the time, and Hispanics got only a fraction of that."

Bankers have also been caught redlining loans, in which white areas get market interest rates and black neighborhoods get rates approved by the American Loan Sharks Association.

With such tactics so widespread, one might think the Ohio Legislature would be rushing to enact criminal penalties. But here in the Birthplace of Aviation, someone sells 10 pounds of pot and he goes to prison -- though his worst offense is causing people to play their Phish records too loud. If, however, someone screws up to 35,000 people -- the estimates in the Farmers case -- he gets a traffic violation.

Brett Crow of the Ohio Attorney General's Office says prosecutors didn't have the option of criminal charges. "There really weren't any statutes applicable." Nor will there be anytime soon.

In the 1998 election cycle, banks and insurers dumped more than $3 million into state races. Enacting criminal laws would mean throwing the Legislature's best bagmen in jail. It's not easy grubbing money from people who don't have phone privileges.

Citrino cautions that proving discrimination still requires proving what's in one's heart. Farmers, for example, admitted no wrongdoing. And good lawyers can render the justice system useless, irrespective of the statutes at hand. One of Citrino's colleagues has been working on a case for 17 years.

But even if an executive is never convicted, be assured that CEO Skippy would think twice about screwing people if it could mean sharing tight quarters with an Aryan named Big Huey.

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