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Documents? What documents?

Somehow, during the course of moving a regional Prudential office from Jacksonville, Fla. to New Jersey earlier this year, a whole bunch of documents were destroyed, Prudential says.

And, somehow, documents also were destroyed in Cambridge, Mass., Des Moines, Iowa, and Syracuse, New York.

A federal judge in January fined the company an additional $1 million for the document destruction and told the company to never do it again. The judge also said the company should set up a telephone hotline for employees to report on incidents of document destruction, and to mail all of its employees a 1995 order barring document destruction. The company said it will do so.

Now, you might ask, why did the company have to be ordered in 1997 to mail out a document drawn up in 1995 that would have protected the rights of shareholders who were defrauded by the company?

Good question, according to some state regulators who are objecting to a proposed settlement in part because they feel the document destruction will have a negative effect on customers who want to prove their case against the company.

In New York, the insurance department was concerned enough about the document destruction problem to raid Prudential offices in six cities, seeking documents and other printed material.

In mid-January, fraud investigators from the state insurance department made a sweep of sales offices in New York City, Long Island, Buffalo, Rochester, Albany and Syracuse. Officials from the insurance department said they did so to make sure that no more documents were destroyed.

"The department was part of the multi-state task force that fined Prudential $35 million and set up a restitution plan which will return millions more to policyholders," said Gregory V. Serios, New York's acting superintendent of insurance. "One element of the plan relies on demonstrating that a policyholder was misled by a sales agent. Therefore, the destruction of any sales materials is of paramount concern."

The New York investigators, armed with subpeonas, gathered up sales materials, list of documents that were destroyed or removed, audits relating to record retention and other material. They said Prudential officials cooperated with the fraud investigators.

Florida is one of four states objecting to the proposed court settlement.

Fortunately, most of what was destroyed in Florida already had been copied in resonse to subpoenas issued by the Florida Attorney General and the Florida Department of Insurance prior to the move. Prudential says it specifically asked its employees not to destroy anything that might be subject to investigation.

Prudential says that it fired David Fastenberg, the head of the individual insurance group's greater southern territory, for failing to enforce the company's directives to preserve documents. Other agents have been fired by the company for the same reason.

Some of those agents said in a recently filed suit that the company not only condoned document destruction, but encouraged it.

The folks in the Florida insurance department say not to worry, that there probably are copies of whatever was destroyed. They have already copied 40,000 pages of documents - including agent complaint records and individual policy holder sales agreements - that might be needed down the road.

While Florida did not participate in the Multi-State Task Force, it has been investigating claims of churning on its own for more than a year. They say they went their own way because of the state's unique demographics. Since they have a high percentage of elderly residents, they were concerned that Florida might have been prime territory for unscrupulous agents looking to make quick sales.

Florida recently passed a law that defined churning with regard to insurance sales, and made it illegal. An investigation by the insurance department found churning complaints to be centered in the Tampa Bay area.

If you live in Florida and have any questions about any policies you may have purchased from Prudential in the early 80's or 90's, you can call 1-800-342-2762, the insurance department's hotline. Ask for someone working on the Prudential investigation.

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