AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas lawmaker called Thursday for an investigation into racist emails uncovered within the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which acknowledged in court that bigotry could have influenced a claim filed by a predominantly Hispanic school district.
The racist emails surfaced in a lawsuit brought by the Brownsville school district over unpaid damage from a 2008 hurricane, heaping more negative attention on a quasi-governmental agency beset recently by financial troubles. TWIA is the insurer of last resort for Texas coastal property owners.
Republican state Rep. John Smithee, who chairs the House Insurance Committee that oversees TWIA, said he's concerned by the email contents and has considered what entity could pursue an inquiry.
"That kind of behavior is inexcusable," Smithee said.
According to a court transcript of a hearing last week in Brownsville, TWIA attorney Andrew McKinney told a state district judge that a now-deceased claims supervisor in South Texas, Bill Knarr, had "issues with people who aren't white." That came after the discovery of emails that McKinney acknowledged were "certainly over the line" in terms of being racist.
"The fact that Bill Knarr was involved in this case and the fact that Bill Knarr is or was a racist, I think that puts us on the bubble, maybe yes, maybe no, that racism played a role in how this claim was handled," said McKinney, according to the transcript.
But, McKinney added, "I think the claim-specific email such as they are does not show that."
The Brownsville school district is suing TWIA for $26 million in contractual damages after receiving nothing for the destruction caused by Hurricane Dolly, said Steve Mostyn, a Houston lawyer who's representing the district. He wants more TWIA records to see if bigotry factored into the handling of the claim.
More than half of all students in Brownville ISD are Hispanic, according to state figures.
Mostyn, who is also a major Democratic political donor, has asked the Texas Department of Insurance, which regulates TWIA, for an investigation. Jerry Hagins, an agency spokesman, said Mostyn's complaint is being processed and said he could not comment further, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
A phone message at TWIA's offices was not immediately returned Thursday. Alainna Giacone, a TWIA spokeswoman, told the Austin-American Statesman last week after the newspaper first published the emails that the association "does not agree with the allegations that a culture of racism existed at TWIA."
She went on tell the newspaper that TWIA has "firm policies" against discriminatory, racist or offensive behavior.
The association is the insurer of last resort for 266,000 homeowners and businesses that cannot find commercial insurance because of the risk of hurricanes or severe storms. TWIA relies on premiums and assessments placed on Texas insurance companies to subsidize the coverage because of the high risk of catastrophic losses.
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