Bentley, ex-mayor of Milledgeville, arrested on insurance fraud charges

Former Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley turned himself in Monday afternoon to face a dozen charges of insurance fraud.

Those include seven counts of misappropriation of insurance premiums -- more than $34,000 altogether -- and five counts of issuing fraudulent certificates of insurance, Glenn Allen, a spokesman for Georgia Commissioner of Insurance Ralph Hudgens, said in a news release.

“We have a total of seven alleged victims, dating back to September of 2013,” said Joe Wooten, assistant special agent in charge of the GBI’s Milledgeville office.

Bentley, 52, resigned in February after a decade as mayor, blaming health problems. He had been on medical leave since October.

Until recently Bentley owned Wilkinson Insurance Agency, but he sold the business in January to Craig Massee Insurance, also of Milledgeville. Bentley’s arrest report now lists him as unemployed.

Bentley was picked up at the office of his attorney, Donald Oulsnam, and taken by a deputy sheriff to the Baldwin County jail about 4 p.m., Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee said.

“After he was processed into our jail facility, he was released on a $50,000 bond,” Massee said. The sheriff’s office handled the warrants but is not involved in the investigation, he said.

A call to Bentley’s home was not returned Monday.

He has been under investigation for months by the insurance commissioner and GBI, and Allen said more charges are possible. Insurance fraud is a felony that can bring two to 10 years in prison, or a fine up to $10,000, according to Allen’s news release.

“At this time the investigation is focused on Mr. Bentley,” Allen said via email.

Allen has said the inquiry began after the insurance commissioner received a complaint in November. State insurance investigators visited Wilkinson’s Insurance Agency’s office and interviewed several employees at that time. Investigators from the insurance commission searched Wilkinson’s office Dec. 23, seizing files and several other items.

On Dec. 2, Theodore Harris, owner of Gordon-based Harris Trucking Inc., complained to Milledgeville Police Chief Dray Swicord that he didn’t get the worker’s compensation insurance policy for which he had paid Bentley. Harris said a Wilkinson Insurance employee told him a refund was impossible “because the account which the payment would come from has been cleared out due to a medical emergency that Bentley experienced,” according to the police report.

Without that coverage, the trucking company couldn’t operate, Harris said.

Swicord turned that complaint over to the GBI on Dec. 5, Wooten said. On Dec. 15, GBI investigators realized the insurance commissioner was working on “similar complaints,” so the agencies joined forces, he said.

The arrest affidavits describe incidents dating back to Sept. 23, 2013, through Oct. 10, 2014, in which Bentley is accused of pocketing insurance premiums instead of buying policies.

Six of the charges are related to Harris Trucking: taking a premium payment April 7, 2014, and then on five occasions giving a fake certificate of insurance for coverage that Harris didn’t actually have, due to Bentley’s failure to actually pay the premium, according to the charges.

“These individuals believed they had insurance coverage, but actually had no legitimate coverage,” Hudgens said in Allen’s release. “Such actions constitute a violation of a trust between an agent and policyholder, a violation I take very seriously.”

Warrants for Bentley went out Monday, said Fred Bright, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit district attorney.

“We agreed to bond immediately. He’s obviously a candidate for bond,” Bright said.

The next major step in which the district attorney will be involved is presenting the case for indictment. That should occur May 20 or July 13, Bright said.

“We have a grand jury here in Baldwin County pretty much every other month,” he said.

Bentley won a third term as mayor in 2013. On Feb. 3, he sent a resignation letter to city aldermen and Acting Mayor Jeanette Walden, citing undisclosed health problem.

“Due to my recent medical crisis and the resulting difficulties involving my former business, I consider this action to be in the best interest of my family and our great City,” he wrote.

Melba Burrell, a 66-year-old business owner; former Mayor Floyd L. Griffin Jr., a 70-year-old funeral home owner; and Gary L. Thrower, a 55-year-old local businessman, are seeking to replace Bentley in a June 16 special election.