Sheriff’s officials say a Port Lavaca insurance agent arrested on fraud charges pocketed payments for wind insurance, leaving some homeowners vulnerable in the heart of hurricane season.
“We have a lot of people pulling their hair out,” said Chief Deputy Johnny Krause, adding, “If all of sudden we had storms in a week or two … these people wouldn’t be covered. The policies were not paid.”
Calhoun County sheriff’s investigators have received at least 25 complaints from residents who found they were in fact not covered by Texas Windstorm Insurance Association policies despite making regular payments to a Port Lavaca Farmers Insurance agent, Krause said. Authorities arrested that agent, Paul Michael Orta, 36, and his wife, Marisa Renee Orta, 37, on July 17 and booked them into the Calhoun County Jail.
The couple, who were each arrested on warrants charging them with forgery of a financial instrument and misapplication of fiduciary property of financial funds between $2,500 and $30,000, were released that day. They both were required to post a $120,000 bond.
Victoria attorney Brent Dornburg, who is representing the Ortas, emphasized that the case is still in its early stages, adding his clients were not the only ones working at the Farmers office.
He said the Ortas were committed to making those affected “whole again” and were still trying to understand how any insurance problems may have occurred.
The Ortas could not be reached for comment, and phone calls to their office were not answered Thursday.
Although some people speculated on Facebook that the Ortas had loaded up a U-haul and skipped town after bonding out, Dornburg said those rumors were false.
The U-haul, he said, was present because Paul Orta’s mother was moving in with them.
Sheriff’s officials are advising anyone who purchased windstorm insurance to confirm their policy’s status through the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association by calling 1-800-788-8247.
Anyone who finds their insurance is not valid despite making regular payments through escrow accounts or physical checks is also asked to contact Calhoun County Sheriff’s Investigator Steven Boyd, who is handling the case.
Krause said reaching people who were defrauded is essential in developing the office’s investigation. Despite receiving more than two dozen complaints, Krause said he suspects many more Calhoun County residents are victims. He said additional charges for the Ortas are possible.
“Every offense counts,” Krause said, adding, “We need documentation for how many people were defrauded so we can handle it appropriately ... This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Although Paul Orta sold insurance as a Farmers agent, windstorm insurance is a service separate from the company provided through the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which was established by the Texas Legislature in 1971 in response to market conditions after Hurricane Celia.
Representatives for the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association and Texas Department of Insurance said they were not aware of any recourse or fund available for fraud victims.
But Paul Orta’s insurance agency has attracted the attention of the Texas Department of Insurance, which began looking into his office after receiving complaints after Hurricane Harvey.
Jerry Hagins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance, declined to comment on that ongoing investigation. Anyone who suspects they may have been the victims of insurance fraud is asked to make complaints online through the department’s website or by calling 1-800-252-3439.
He said an agent can have a license revoked or be ordered to pay restitution after an investigation is concluded.
According to the department’s website, Paul Orta currently holds several valid insurance licenses. Marisa Orta holds no such licenses.
Although Krause said he was unsure whether sheriff’s office or insurance department investigators had determined whether Marisa Orta was an employee of the agency, he said he had little doubt that she knew of any fraud conducted there.
In fact, Marisa Orta was convicted of theft of property between $20,000 and $100,000 in 2006 and was given 10 years probation and ordered to pay $22,932.80 in restitution.
According to the Texas Department of Banking, Orta embezzled $22,932.80 from Prosperity Bank in Victoria by taking cash from the vault, ATM cash cassettes and unused drawers while working as a teller there.
For that conviction, she is barred from working for a state bank or trust company but not insurance agencies.
According to Victoria County court records, Paul Orta was convicted in 2007 for issuing a bad check, a Class C misdemeanor. In 2005, he was charged with theft of stolen property between $500 and $1,500, but prosecutors chose to abandon the charge.
Greg Haynes, the owner of independent insurance firm Victoria Insurance Group, said many insurance companies perform background checks before appointing a person as an agent.
Haynes has about 30 years in the industry.
But theft and fraud are not unheard of among insurance agents, and customers should ask for the actual documents that show they have purchased a policy to confirm their insurance is valid. He also advised customers make windstorm insurance payment checks out to the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association rather than the agent.
The very nature of the insurance industry means trust between agents and customers is essential, Haynes said. After all, insurance customers entrust not only their premium payments to agents but also the property they insure, he said.
“Trust is the No. 1 factor,” Haynes said.