On March 7, 46-year-old Republican political consultant Tom Blakely and his wife, Deborah, sent off a check to Transamerica Life Insurance Corp, beginning the family’s second life insurance policy with the company.
The timing of the Blakelys’ decision to take on that policy turned out to be a tragic coincidence.
On March 15, while running a weekend 5K race in Bordentown, Blakely suffered a heart attack, collapsed and died on the spot. Shockwaves immediately reverberated through the political community, many of whom had known Blakely, a fit former Marine with two children ages three and one, for decades, and who had used his company, Jamestown Associates, to run their campaigns.
But two months after Blakely’s death, Transamerica is disputing his family’s claim for the second life insurance policy, and still has not paid their first one.
That has led Blakely’s close friend and partner at Jamestown, Larry Weitzner, to organize a lawsuit and a tough public relations push against Transamerica on behalf of Blakely’s family.
Weitzner has enlisted the help of some Republican bigwigs, including state legislators who have asked the Department of Banking and Insurance to investigate the company’s business practices and are thinking about calling hearings and authoring legislation to change the way life insurance companies do business in the state.
“It’s a case of an insurance company trying to find ways out of fulfilling an obligation,” said Weitzner. “It’s everyone’s worst image of an insurance company being practiced by Transamerica.”
Weitzner has even set up a Web site, www.dumptransamerica.com, that doesn’t yet include details about Blakely’s case but solicits users to submit complaints about the company. If the company continues to hold out, he plans to produce a Youtube ad of Deborah Blakely talking about her experience with the company and distribute it through Jamestown’s 300,000 member email list.
In the months leading up to his death, Blakely underwent a physical with a Transamerica approved doctor and passed, said attorney Hersh Kozlov, a major figure in Republican circles who has taken on the case pro-bono. Also working the case for free is attorney Greg Lomax.
According to Kozlov, the company’s paperwork told the Blakelys that their new policy would be approved as soon as they received their first premium check. But, Kozlov said, they added a condition after-the-fact. Shortly after Tom Blakely’s death – and well after the check had been mailed — Debbie Blakely received a letter saying that the policy would be valid as soon as they received a “statement of good health” signed by her recently deceased husband.
That, according to Kozlov, was never part of the deal.
”He couldn’t sign it. He was dead. So the insurance statement seems to be saying you didn’t sign the statement of good health, but that was never a condition of the policy.”
Kozlov said that he presumes the company did not know that Blakely had died.
“But I don’t think you can change the conditions of a contract once the contract is signed,” he said. “It strikes me that they ought to just honor their contract. That’s why people buy life insurance.”
Kozlov preferred not to discuss how much the policies were worth.
A letter written to the insurance department by state Sen. Joe Kyrillos and signed by fellow Republican legislators Kevin O’Toole, Leonard Lance, Diane Allen and Marcia Karrow requested that the Department “review this matter and find resolution for the Blakely family.” The letter also expressed concerns that the two policies were issued by direct mail, and that the family had no contact with an agent.
“I’m looking very carefully at the ability of life insurers to do business via direct mail, rather than have a physical agent that can communicate directly what is a major life financial decision,” said Kyrillos in a phone interview. “And if this is at all indicative of how Transamerica conducts business in New Jersey or how the industry conducts itself in general, then we’re going to be speaking to change the rules in a dramatic way for the better.”
O’Toole, for his part, said that his first priority is to make sure that Debbie Blakely is taken care of.
“I would volunteer my efforts to go to the end of the world to make sure his kids and wife are taken care of,” he said. “And anyone out there with similar circumstances, we’re happy to help them as well.”
O’Toole said that he plans to hold hearings on the company’s conduct, since others are likely to have had a similar experience.
It’s not the first time he’s dealt with insurance companies. While an assemblyman, he helped guide a constituent after her insurance company refused to pay for her child’s ear implant procedure.
“As legislators we’ve had, from time to time, to wrestle with insurance companies. It’s not the first time but it strikes close to home because we knew Tom Blakely very well, and it strikes me from the facts that I have that it’s very unfair,” he said. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
PolitickerNJ.com could not get Transamerica’s side of the story. The company is represented by M. Paige Berry, a former official in the Whitman gubernatorial administration who works at the Princeton branch of Saul Ewing. Berry referred inquiries to Transamerica’s corporate headquarters in California.
Spokeswoman Nichole Lorey said that company policy forbids her from commenting on pending litigation.”Due to privacy laws and regulations, and the company’s internal policies and procedures, specific details about transactions or life insurance policies cannot be disclosed without the written consent of the claimant or the insured. However, we work to be very diligent in our claim handling procedures and are confident that this process is being handled in a fair manner,” she said in a statement. “In general, and in keeping with industry practice, all requirements need to be completed before a life insurance contract can take effect.”
That response didn’t appease Weitzner.
"It's consistent with the cold-hearted and unfair treatment Transamerica has exhibited throughout this tragic process,” he said. "The Blakely family deserves better than this. They deserve the insurance that Transamerica promised them."