‘Bounty hunter’ may be the richest Kentuckian you don’t know
LA GRANGE, Ky. (AP) — He divides his time between a 180-acre farm in Oldham County and the most expensive waterfront condominium ever sold in Palm Beach, Florida.
He and his wife own the biggest private employer in Oldham County, where 1,500 people labor in a sprawling complex the size of four football fields.
He has no children and has said he has no close friends. He plans to work until he dies.
His foundation’s tax records show he and his company gave away a staggering $75 million in recent years to both sectarian charities and evangelical causes, including youth camps in 13 underdeveloped countries. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, where the divinity school is named for the Rawlings family, is a favorite.
He’s tall (at 6-foot-3, he played freshman basketball for University of Louisville with Wes Unseld), he’s usually tanned, and his flowing white hair gives him what a former associate calls the look of “Zeus stepping off Mount Olympus.”
He played on and patroned (Spanish for bossed) an elite international polo team that three times won the U.S. championship in a rarefied sport where it costs as much as $4 million per year — and takes a staff of 20 to 40 — to field a team.
His official residence is about two miles north of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, which has no personal income tax.
His name is George Rawlings, and he may be the richest Kentuckian you’ve never heard of.
“He is mysterious,” said David Bizianes, executive director of Oldham County’s chamber of commerce. “He works below the radar.”
The 72-year-old made his fortune as a bounty hunter, of sorts.
Rawlings is the father of a multi-billion-dollar industry that hunts down people who get legal settlements related to injuries from car wrecks or from defective products. He recoups what their health care provider spent on their medical care, keeps about 20 percent and sends the rest to the insurer.
This has made him rich, and spawned a $2.5 billion national industry.
Critics say the practice can be cruel because severely injured people can lose most or even all of a settlement — money they counted on to defray lost wages or compensate for pain and suffering. And sometimes they lose that money without being made whole for their damages.
Victim advocates — Louisville personal injury lawyer Sheila Hiestand among them — say Rawlings and others like him make their fortunes on the backs of injured people, often enriching themselves by riding the coattails of lawyers who sometimes fight for years to get settlements and verdicts.
Other trial lawyers, including T.J. Smith and Larry Jones, both of Louisville, say the Rawlings Group negotiated fair payments for their clients.
Rawlings declined several requests for interviews, saying he wanted to protect his privacy. But he and other practitioners of health care subrogation say it reduces health insurance costs, allowing lower premiums for all employees.
Proponents also say it would be unfair if an insurance company covers the medical bills but the injured person keeps money received from a third party to cover those same bills.
Subrogation — an insurer’s right to recover the amount it has paid for a loss from a third party that caused the loss — is nothing new. The practice dates back to the American Revolution, when an insurer was allowed to go after the maker of a faulty furnace that caused a fire in a building.
“The problem isn’t George,” said Hans Poppe, a plaintiff’s lawyer. “The problem is the law.”
Rawlings boasts on its website that he literally wrote the book on subrogation law and has “an unbeaten record of recovering more money for health plans than any of our competitors”
Bob Taylor, a former University of Louisville business school dean and two-decade Rawlings company advisory board member, calls Rawlings a genius who figured out how to recover previously uncollected “found money.” His invention includes using medical data, court records and even social media posts to identify people getting settlements, then demanding what the insurance company is legally due.
Most states — including Kentucky — prohibit or limit taking settlement money from injured people, but it’s perfectly legal under federal law as long as the injured person’s health plan allows it. And unbeknownst to most employees, plans offered through most large companies do.
An estimated 60 percent of American workers are enrolled in self-funded health plans subject to subrogation. That means the health plan that reserves first dibs on any money an injured employee recovers from a third party, such as an at-fault driver, even if the amount left for the employee doesn’t make him whole — and even if the payments were designated as compensation for pain and suffering.
Once a small law firm with a dozen employees, the Rawlings Group now collects money on behalf of more than 60 companies — including Aetna and Cigna — with 200 million insured members.
Rawlings, who drives a Porsche Cayenne and flies on private jets to woo business CEOs around the country, is the son of a preacher who pastored one of the nation’s largest churches, Landmark Baptist Temple near Cincinnati, and president of Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, where he mentored Jerry Falwell Sr. as a student.
But Rawlings was living in a Louisville mobile home park in 1970 when he got a $150-a-week job covering courts for Courier Journal and The Louisville Times.
After working his way through University of Louisville law school, he found a powerful mentor in hotel magnate and builder Al Schneider, who lent him law books and gave him a place to practice, said Russell McClure, a friend of both who later served as Gov. Julian Carroll’s finance secretary. For a time, Rawlings and his wife, Beverly, even lived in Schneider’s Galt House.
Rawlings was running a conventional civil law practice in the mid-1980s when he had an epiphany: Lawyers were winning medical damages for clients whose medical costs already were paid by their insurance.
“The medical expense dawned on me one day,” he told MSNBC years later. “Why isn’t this money going back to who it belongs to?”
He pitched his idea about going after the money to Humana Health Plans, then to Blue Cross Blue Shield of California, and kept getting more and more clients, recalled Marc Breit, a young lawyer who worked beside him.
The trick was finding settlements. A staff that eventually grew to include data miners with Ph.D.s who scoured ambulance bills, records of emergency room visits, news stories — anything that showed a person had been injured and had collected money for it. Then analysts would call, mail and email victims, getting them to volunteer details.
Rawlings also branched out into delinquent medical bill collection and other types of recovery. His company had more than 500 employees when it moved to La Grange in 2007, Bizianes said.
Rawlings and his company stayed out of the news until locals started asking about the source of a $100,000 anonymous gift to the city of La Grange and Oldham County governments. After they learned the source was Rawlings’ foundation, he said the gift was in “appreciation for the warm reception we have received in the community” and that he never asked local officials for any favors in return.
Rawlings Foundation donations are anonymous, he said, because his faith insists it is wrong to seek glory for charity. No one ever accused him of doing anything wrong.
The gifts to government continue. IRS records show the foundation, which has $103 million in assets, gave $117,824 to local governments, fire and police departments from 2014 to 2016. Much of the money paid for police cruisers.
The foundation also built the $7 million, 38,000 square-foot CityPlace Exposition and Convention Center in downtown La Grange, which provides rent-free space to the Chamber of Commerce and a visitor’s center. The center can also be rented for graduations, parties and weddings — except gay weddings, a receptionist said. Nor do foundation rules allow alcohol, profanity and indecent dress at what La Grange Mayor Joe Davenport called a “fantastic” facility.
“You can’t be much luckier than having an individual like this living in your community,” said Oldham County Judge Executive David Voegele.
Those rules are just one manifestation of Rawlings’ conservative religious and political beliefs. Employees say all televisions in his company’s three-story headquarters are set to Fox News. Former company lawyer David Abney said Rawlings would break out his Bible for private devotionals during jet flights.
The Rawlings Foundation is also generous to secular causes. Past gifts include at least $1 million each to University of Louisville; to Cedar Lake Lodge, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; and to Baptist Health La Grange, which named its women’s center for Rawlings and his wife.
But the foundation, whose official mission is to “further the advancement of Christian education, values and teachings around the world,” has given most to Impact Youth Worldwide, which operates camps and ministries in underdeveloped countries. The organization, launched by the late John W. Rawlings, says it delivered “Christian values and teachings” to more than 300,000 children in 2016 alone.
The Rawlings family also has given $12 million to Liberty University, whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., said the gift allowed construction of its new 275-high Freedom Tower, which houses the Rawlings School of Divinity.
“He walks to the message of the gospel and his footprints are found all over the world,” Voegele said. “He is a great person.”
In a meeting last year, Rawlings told Courier Journal he tries to devote all company profits to charity. He stressed that his 2016 purchase of a $13.9 million, 6,531 square-foot Florida condo involved proceeds from the $20 million sale of his 40-acre Florida polo farm to former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt.
Taylor, the board member, said Rawlings isn’t motivated by accumulation of personal riches.
“The idea he can help kids is what drives him,” Taylor said.
Local polo players, like Mark Klan, coach of the University of Louisville polo team, said Rawlings has been generous to the program, but is a down-to-earth patron.
“The first time I met him he was sitting on the tailgate of his truck and said, ‘My name is George.’ You would never know he is a multi-millionaire,” Klan said.
Jim Boland, who has played polo in Louisville for decades, said Rawlings was intensely competitive on the field but reserved off it.
“He was always a gentleman,” Boland said.
But critics like Dave Place, a vice president of Orlando, Florida-based Synergy Settlement Services, which tries to help the targets of medical liens, say Rawlings is no Mother Theresa.
He and Hiestand, the personal injury lawyer, said Rawlings’ profits are made on the backs of severely injured people, all to enhance the bottom line of his clients — as well as his own. Philanthropy doesn’t change that, they maintain.
“You can’t buy your way into heaven,” Hiestand said.
Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com