N.D. Agent Under Investigation for Fraud Found Dead

March 26, 2007

Insurance Commissioner Jim Poolman is investigating whether some of an Underwood insurance agent’s customers have lacked coverage for years because she issued bogus policies and kept their premium payments. At least $300,000 is believed to be missing.

The agent, Diane Cottingham, was found dead Saturday on a McLean County section line road near Max, in west-central North Dakota, said Poolman, quoting McLean County Sheriff Don Charging. The sheriff did not respond to telephone messages left Saturday asking him for comment.

Poolman said Cottingham’s vehicle was equipped with a GPS locator, and that she left a note that referred to wanting to help people and being unable to say no.

Cottingham had agreed to meet with him Saturday in Bismarck to sign an order in which she agreed to an immediate revocation of her insurance license, Poolman said. She did not appear.

“We became very, very concerned for her,” and Cottingham’s family and the McLean County sheriff’s department were contacted, Poolman said.

“This is incredibly unfortunate for her family. It’s unfortunate for the policyholders involved,” Poolman said. “My heart and prayers go out to the family. Our job is to obviously grieve for them, but we do have policyholders to protect and my job is to make sure those folks are taken care of.”

The Insurance Department complaint says Cottingham, beginning in January 2004, took insurance premium payments from a number of businesses and never bought policies with them.

She forged documents to make her clients believe they were insured, and even paid claims to make sure the insurance companies did not find out she had issued policies in their names, the complaint says.

The affected companies were Farmers Union Oil Co. outlets in Hazen and Beulah, Cenex stations in Bismarck, Mandan, Sterling and Dickinson, and the Mercer-Morton Cooperative Transport Association, of Hazen, a fuel hauler.

Poolman said Saturday he believes Cottingham pocketed at least $300,000 in premium payments, and left some clients without coverage for at least four years.

“Our fear is that there are a lot of other customers that don’t have coverage, and don’t realize it,” Poolman said. “These things always turn out bigger than they appear at the start.”

Poolman said he did not know what happened to the missing money. The Insurance Department will be probing that question, he said.

Cottingham’s agency, Cottingham Insurance, had offices in Underwood, Washburn and Bismarck. She was a member of the board of directors of the Professional Insurance Agents of North Dakota, an influential group that represents independent insurance agents. She was a former president of the PIA.

Poolman said Insurance Department workers would be at the Cottingham agency’s offices on Monday to take calls from customers who have questions about whether they have coverage.

“This will also assist us in our investigation, to make sure that the fake policies don’t go any further, and to make sure that all of the policyholders have the legitimate coverage that they need,” Poolman said.

His office was alerted to the problem last week when an agent, who wanted to sell a policy to the Farmers Union Oil Co. in Beulah, contacted Continental Western Insurance Co. of Des Moines, Iowa.

Farmers Union, relying on Cottingham’s word, believed it was
already covered by the company, but the agent was told it was not,
Poolman said. An attorney for Continental Western subsequently
called the Insurance Department with the news.

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