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Washington’s longtime insurance commissioner accused of mistreating staff

Mike Kreidler photo -- cropped.jpg
Courtesy Office of Insurance Commissioner
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Washington's longtime insurance commissioner, Mike Kreidler, is facing allegations that he verbally mistreats staff and that his behavior is destabilizing the office. One top staffer filed a formal complaint in February accusing Kreidler of bullying him and antagonizing staff. The complaint said Kreidler is "not fit to lead" and should consider stepping aside. Kreidler responds that he has high standards for his staff, but also said he will work to be more careful in how he deals with people. He said he has no plans to resign his position.

Mike Kreidler, Washington’s longtime insurance commissioner, is facing allegations that he verbally mistreats staff. Current and former employees say it’s part of a pattern that’s gotten worse in recent months and is contributing to high turnover in the office. Kreidler says he has high standards for his staff, but said he will work to be more careful in how he deals with people.

For more than two decades, Mike Kreidler has served as Washington’s elected insurance commissioner, burnishing a reputation as a tough consumer advocate willing to go toe-to-toe with the insurance industry.

But in recent weeks a chorus of current and former Office of Insurance Commissioner (OIC) employees have expressed collective alarm about what they describe as Kreidler’s growing volatility and mistreatment of his staff.

They say the situation has contributed to an exodus of staff from the small agency. It’s also triggered a formal HR complaint from a current high-level staffer who said he doesn’t believe Kreidler is “fit to lead.” Some believe the six-term Democrat should consider stepping down mid-term.

“I almost feel guilty about saying these things, but I have so much respect for the people who are still there and the people who left before I did. I just think the place is in disarray now,” said Steve Valandra, who served for more than eight years as Kreidler’s deputy commissioner for public affairs.

Another former key staffer, Lonnie Johns-Brown, who served as the OIC’s legislative director from 2014 to 2020, described two sides of Kreidler.

“What I saw at the time was someone who cared about issues, sincerely cared about issues,” Johns-Brown said. “I also knew he had a temper. He never crossed a line with me, but I observed many instances of bad behavior.”

Johns-Brown said that included snide remarks and frequent belittling of staff in front of their peers.

A third former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation said Kreidler at times drove people to tears and described the work environment as traumatizing.

“I’m talking about meaness, deliberately cutting people down publicly to humiliate them, not letting bygones be bygones,” the person said.

In a lengthy interview this week, Kreidler said he was “surprised” and “saddened” to hear his conduct had offended and upset people and said it wasn’t his intention. But he also defended his high expectations for employees.

“I feel very strong about protecting consumers and making sure we do it right and if there are mistakes that we're making, I'm not shy in pointing it out. I need to be more tactful when I do that,” Kreidler said.

A legacy at risk

At 78, Kreidler is the state’s oldest and longest-serving current statewide elected leader. He was last reelected in 2020. His current term expires in January 2025.

Previously, Kreidler served in the state Legislature and was a one-term member of Congress. He also served 20 years in the U.S. Army Reserve, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel.

First established as a separately elected state agency in 1907, the OIC is responsible for regulating the insurance industry, approving rates and advocating for consumers. The office has approximately 260 employees when fully staffed.

During his long tenure, Kreidler has worked to stabilize Washington’s individual health insurance market, limit premium hikes and defend the federal Affordable Care Act in the face of repeal efforts. He’s also required insurance companies to cover medically necessary gender-affirming treatments and protected consumers against surprise health care bills.

In 2019, Kreidler took action against insurance companies that were selling National Rifle Association-branded self-defense policies to gun owners in Washington.

During the pandemic, Kreidler has issued several emergency rules to ensure that insurers cover services like COVID testing and tele-medicine visits.

But some longtime supporters of Kreidler say the way he treats his staff — in particular members of his executive management team, executive assistants and others who work closely with him — now threatens to undermine his legacy of consumer advocacy.

The Northwest News Network spoke to more than a dozen current and former OIC employees, many of whom served in high-level positions, who all expressed similar concerns about how Kreidler engages with his employees and others. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity. Some said Kreidler’s pattern of behavior appears to have gotten worse and has plunged the OIC into crisis.

Kreidler rejected the idea that his agency is in disarray or crisis.

While some former employees described Kreidler’s verbal treatment of staff as “abusive,” one took issue with that term and said, instead, that Kriedler “could be sharp.”

Another former employee, Barbara Flye, who was Kreidler’s senior health policy advisor from 2007 to 2013, praised Kreidler as a genuine public servant.

“I have always found him to be wonderful to work for and I’m surprised that there are any issues,” Flye said.

A formal complaint

A cherubic-faced retired optometrist, Kreidler comes off as an approachable grandfatherly figure. But people who’ve worked for him say there’s another side to Kreidler that reveals itself in private, workplace settings.

Last month, the OIC’s legislative director, Jon Noski, lodged a formal complaint accusing Kreidler of “bullying me” and increasingly “antagonizing staff.”

In his complaint, Noski described an incident that occurred on February 1 after he testified before a legislative committee on behalf of the OIC. Noski said Kreidler wasn’t happy with how the hearing had gone and used crass terms to berate him over the phone afterwards.

“The commissioner said that I am an impotent embarrassment who might need to be replaced because of my incompetence,” Noski wrote in his complaint. “The commissioner said I must enjoy getting pissed on and asked if he needed to wipe my ass.”

Noski wrote that it pained him to file the complaint because he feels Kreidler “has been on the right side of history on social justice issues and has been a strong advocate for consumer protections, and LGBTQ, and women’s rights.”

The Northwest News Network obtained a copy of Noski’s complaint through a public records request.

Asked about Noski’s complaint, Kreidler said he would dispute some of the specifics, but didn’t deny the allegations.

“I was out of order, I made mistakes,” Kreidler said. “It’s not something I'm going to replicate in the future.”

A former executive assistant, who left the office last year, kept a private log of incidents during which she said Kreidler verbally mistreated her.

In one instance, after she failed to forward an email to him over the weekend, she said Kreidler told her, “You have to decide which job is more important to you, your job here or your job in the home.”

Kreidler said he did not recall saying that, but added, “if she interpreted it that way, then I feel bad about it. And I certainly apologize.”

The former employee, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, provided a copy of her incident log to the Northwest News Network.

The woman said initially Kreidler’s “emotionally abusive and demeaning” comments were occasional. But over time, she said, they became a daily, if not multiple times a day, occurrence.

“A lot of comments along those very sexist lines and other demeaning-like comments, consistently,” the woman said.

Kreidler said he didn't wish to address individual accusations or accounts. But he denied treating his female employees differently and noted that he has been married for more than 50 years and is the father of two daughters.

The woman also said Kreidler required her to return to working in the office five days a week before she was vaccinated against COVID-19.

Kreidler acknowledged that happened for some "essential staff," but noted the office was closed to the public and exposure to other individuals “was very limited.”

High turnover, low morale

The allegations of verbal abuse by Kreidler come amid high turnover in the insurance commissioner’s office and follow a recent employee satisfaction survey that revealed deep dissatisfaction with the office’s COVID-19 return-to-work policy and with Kreidler’s leadership style.

“I appreciate the employees that come to work and do an amazing job even though they are frustrated, angry, and disappointed in our leader,” wrote one employee.

Another said: “I’ve personally seen him treat several women on staff, many of whom have left, very poorly.”

A third wrote, “In all the years I have worked here I have never seen morale so low.”

Some questioned his competency to continue leading and suggested he leave office.

“The commissioner has displayed a pattern of disrespect and inappropriate behavior towards OIC employees … I would actively discourage anyone from applying and I applaud those who are leaving,” wrote an employee.

In a letter to staff responding to the survey, Kreider said employees in his office have historically reported high job satisfaction, but he acknowledged “we have lost much of the ground.”

“Some of the comments were not easy for me to read. But they are important. I have work to do. And we have work to do together,” he wrote.

Several of the survey comments noted the high turnover among the staff. According to the agency, 22.5 percent of OIC staff resigned or retired between January 2021 and February 2022.

“We have these employees that are so technically skilled and they’re just leaving and who does that let down? Washington citizens,” said one former high-level staffer who left the agency within the past year.

Only a handful of departures were related to the office’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to an OIC spokesperson. Currently, the agency has 41 vacant positions.

Kreidler acknowledged the turnover, but noted many employers are struggling to recruit and retain employees.

“It's certainly been more acute right now because of the pandemic, because of COVID it's made it a lot tougher,” Kreidler said.

Adding to the unstable environment has been a constant churn among the agency’s executive management team. Since March 2020, according to the OIC, five of Kreidler’s seven deputies have departed, including three of four women who held that position.

There’s also been turnover in the chief deputy position which serves as the equivalent of the agency’s chief of staff.

Since 2018, the office has had four chief deputies. The most recent departure was Mark Dietzler who resigned without explanation on February 21 after just four months in the job. Dietzler did not respond to a request for comment.

In other cases, former employees said, Kreidler has fired people capriciously. They point, in particular, to Jack Lovell, a U.S. Army veteran who served the agency for five years, including 18 months as acting chief deputy, before Kreidler demanded his resignation in August 2021.

According to people familiar with the situation, Lovell’s departure followed an internal information technology breach where proprietary insurance company data was not properly secured. The breach may have briefly allowed insurance companies to view each other’s competitively sensitive information.

Former staffers acknowledged the situation was embarrassing for the OIC, but said the problem was quickly identified and corrected. While described as potentially serious, no one the Northwest News Network spoke with thought the situation arose to a fireable offense or that Lovell bore direct responsibility. Nonetheless, former staffers said, Kreidler was irate and ultimately demanded Lovell’s resignation, giving him until 5 p.m. to clear out his office.

Kreidler would not comment on Lovell’s departure, describing it as a personnel matter.

“What I will say is Jack Lovell worked here. He did a great job. I liked him personally. And we decided to part ways and I'm going to leave it at that,” Kreidler said.

Reached by phone, Lovell declined to comment. But his firing was the last straw for two higher-level employees, including Valandra, who soon after decided to retire.

“That just put me over the edge. I said I just had enough,” Valandra said.

Credit scoring ban

The growing criticism against Kreidler comes as he continues to wage a months-long crusade to end the practice of insurance companies using consumer credit scores to set rates for auto, homeowner and renter insurance.

Kreidler has said credit scoring is not correlated to risk and unfairly penalizes lower-income people and, in particular, people of color. Critics counter that an outright ban on credit scoring will result in higher insurance rates for drivers with good credit.

Last year, the Legislature failed to pass a bill requested by Kreidler’s office that would have permanently banned the practice.

In response, Kreidler used his office’s executive authority to issue an emergency rule to block insurers from using credit scores. Insurance companies sued and prevailed when a judge in Thurston County invalidated the emergency order.

Since then, the OIC has worked on creating a non-emergency, temporary rule banning credit scoring for three years and is already being challenged in court by insurance companies. That new rule was scheduled to take effect March 4 but the state and industry groups agreed to a pause while the lawsuit is being considered.

The credit scoring issue has put Kreidler at odds with Democratic state Sen. Mark Mullet who chairs the Business, Financial Services and Trade Committee. This year, Mullet introduced what he considered compromise legislation modeled after Oregon law that would allow insurers to use credit scores to write an initial policy, but not as the basis to raise rates when a policy renews.

Kreidler’s office, though, opposed the bill. Mullet said he’s been perplexed by Kreidler’s unwillingness to compromise, calling it “myopic” and “bizarre.”

“I think he’s been all emotion, no logic [on this issue],” Mullet said of Kreidler. “Most people who’ve been down in Olympia a long time have never seen behavior like this.”

Mullet added that Kriedler’s unyieldingness has put his staff in a tough spot and described Noski, the legislative director, as “very professional and courteous.”

Kreidler defended his approach and said he’s using the tools that are legally available to him to advocate for the consumers of Washington.

‘Unhinged without warning’

The day Kreidler lashed out at Noski prompting the formal complaint, Noski had testified in opposition to another Mullet bill that would have barred the OIC from implementing its emergency ban on credit scoring while a workgroup and mediator hashed through the issue.

Noski said the hearing went as planned, but afterwards Kreidler was angry that he wasn’t aware in advance that the governor’s office would be testifying in favor of Mullet’s bill.

In his complaint, Noski recounted that the governor’s office had confirmed its position on the bill late the previous evening. Otherwise, Noski said, Kreidler had been included in all the updates leading up to the hearing.

“He did not seem to recall any of this,” Noski wrote.

Later that same day, Noski said, Kreidler called a second meeting with top staff to discuss what had happened at the hearing. During that meeting, Noski said Kreidler tore into his staff.

“He yelled that OIC needs to be strong, but we made him look weak and now the governor has a political chit over him,” Noski wrote.

Noski also wrote that last year Kreidler had offended Democratic state Sen. Mona Das when meeting to discuss insurance credit scoring. Das was the prime sponsor of Kreidler’s bill to ban the practice.

Noski said that at one point he suggested to Kreidler that he apologize to Das.

“He proceeded to yell at me for over an hour about how stupid I am. That I am either drunk or stupid,” Noski wrote. “This is just one other occasion on which he has become unhinged without warning.”

Kreidler said he didn’t recall using that language with Noski. He also disputed the idea that he offended Das and said he didn’t know what Noski was referring to in that part of his complaint.

Das declined to comment, but confirmed meeting with Kreidler on more than one occasion to discuss the credit scoring bill.

Noski said in his complaint that he felt the need to put his concerns in writing because Kreidler’s conduct has become “unacceptable.”

“This complaint could easily jeopardize my career in public service, and I am aware of this risk,” Noski wrote. “But knowing what I know about the commissioner’s abusive behaviors, doing nothing would not be right and would make me culpable if harm were to come to anyone because of his inappropriate behavior.”

Noski also suggested that Kreidler should consider stepping aside.

The OIC reviewed Noski's complaint and determined that Kreidler's alleged conduct did not rise to the level of "improper governmental action" requiring referral to the state auditor's office.

It was also determined that there was no internal action that could be taken against Kreidler as the sitting insurance commissioner, according to a memo written by the office's current chief deputy.

Instead, the concerns outlined in the memo were shared with Kreidler and the complaint was closed.

The OIC provided the Northwest News Network with a copy of the memo dated February 11.

Past controversies

Despite the relatively low-profile nature of the OIC, Kreidler and his office are no strangers to controversy. Last September, some Washington Republicans called on Kreidler to apologize or resign after he compared Texas Republicans to the Taliban after they passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion law.

In 2014, an administrative law judge assigned to the OIC filed a whistleblower complaint alleging she was pressured by Kreidler’s then-chief deputy to decide cases in Kreidler’s favor. While the OIC denied any wrongdoing, the agency ultimately paid a $450,000 settlement to the judge who is no longer with the agency.

That same year, a Republican state senator proposed legislation to eliminate the OIC as an independently elected office.

Peace lily incident

In 2013, in perhaps a harbinger of the current discontent, Kreidler’s then-chief deputy and another employee resigned following what The Seattle Times described as a “dust-up” over a potted plant that had been given to Kreidler as a thank-you gift. Kreidler wanted to keep the plant, but his staff was concerned the gift violated state ethics rules.

“I said for many years that I was one bad day away from retiring,” the former chief deputy, Mike Watson, told the newspaper. “I had a bad day, and I retired.”

Watson declined to comment for this story. However, two former employees with direct knowledge of that incident provided the Northwest News Network with additional details of what happened that day.

According to these individuals, both of whom asked to remain anonymous, the plant in question was a large, potted peace lily that likely cost in excess of $100. Because of rules barring state officials from accepting gifts valued over $50, an executive assistant was directed to donate the plant. She took it to a senior citizen facility in downtown Olympia.

When Kreidler learned what had happened, he summoned the executive assistant and, within earshot of several OIC staff, angrily demanded the return of the plant, according to the two people who agreed to talk about the incident. Ultimately, the plant was picked up and returned to the office. The executive assistant resigned that same day. Watson left soon after.

“It was very over the top,” said one of the former employees who witnessed Kreidler’s outburst. “The air was sucked out of the room.”

Asked about that incident, Kreidler said he remembered it, but not the details. He added that in retrospect he would have handled it differently.

Now, nearly a decade later, former staff say Kreidler’s behavior has escalated to the point that it’s destabilizing the OIC. Some have theorized the stress of the pandemic along with the recent loss of his twin brother to cancer has taken a toll on Kreidler. Whatever the reason, longtime allies call the situation distressing.

“He’s not afraid to take on issues and fight for things and I’ve always respected him for that,” said Valandra, the former public affairs deputy. “But I just don’t respect him anymore for how he’s been treating people, especially for the last year.”

For his part, Kreidler said he had not been aware of how his behavior was impacting his staff.

“I'm going to double down to make sure that I am more careful in dealing with people,” Kreidler said. “Quite frankly it wasn't an issue that was front and center for me.”

While some have suggested Kreidler should consider resigning, he said he has no plans to step down and added that he also hasn’t ruled out running for a seventh term in 2024.

This story has been updated. After the story was first published, insurance companies and the state of Washington agreed to pause the implementation of a rule that bans companies from using credit scores to set insurance rates, which was set to take effect on March 4. This story has been updated to reflect the new development.