News - Blue light special

Little boys love noisy toys

This is a story about a fellow some folks call "Johnny on the Spot."

Two weeks ago, Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine — who, by virtue of his post, is also the state fire marshal — was stripped of his permit to use emergency lights and sirens on his state-issued car after a GBI investigation concluded that he had repeatedly used the equipment for non-emergency purposes. The report revealed that Ox had regularly turned on his blue light and siren to get through traffic when he was late for personal appointments, such as private club meetings, ribbon-cutting ceremonies and dinner appointments with his son.

But most of Johnny's need for speed involved publicity.

Exploiting his largely ceremonial position as fire marshal — and ambitious for higher office — the commissioner has found that tragic fires offer an ideal excuse to race recklessly to the scene and catch a few seconds on local TV newscasts. In fact, some of his detractors in local fire departments have taken to derisively calling him "Johnny on the Spot."

Oxendine's favorite media draws are church fires, and one of the most bizarre episodes of his camera-hogging involved the arrest of a church arson suspect at a rural house.

Ox, in Atlanta at the time, instructed his investigators not to make the arrest until he could get there. Curiously, just as he arrived, several TV vans also showed up.

Police knocked on the door — cameras rolling — and the dazed suspect, once handcuffed, was handed over to Oxendine, who dragged the guy down a sidewalk to a waiting police car. As the suspect climbed into the backseat, Ox screamed, "Duck your head!" to the confused perp, who was already ducking. The staged nature of the incident, as evidenced in the resulting video, is truly hilarious.

In the case that sparked the GBI investigation, Oxendine caused a major accident after he flipped on his blue lights and siren and ran a red light so that he could maneuver around rush-hour traffic at the intersection of I-285 and Atlanta Road. The commissioner's taxpayer-funded Crown Victoria was totaled. The other driver was miraculously uninjured, but his pickup truck sustained almost $7,000 in damage. Due to confusion about Oxendine's explanation of why he was driving with his emergency equipment engaged, police did not assign any blame for the accident.

Oxendine claimed that his lights and siren were on because he was "responding" to a hazardous materials alarm at the offices of the Department of Insurance. GBI investigators confirmed that a building alarm had indeed gone off accidentally that day, but that it was not a result of any hazardous materials emergency — and Oxendine's account of the timing did not square with the actual event.

But Oxendine's 1999 blue-light crash was by no means his only destructive episode involving a state-owned automobile. In 1996, Ox destroyed another Crown Vic in a late-night single-car accident. To this day, suspicions persist as to the exact nature of that crash — suspicions that were intensified by Oxendine's misleading account of what happened in '99. The matter was dropped but, in hindsight, it probably deserved more scrutiny.

It is sadly ironic that the state insurance commissioner has, himself, become an extraordinary insurance risk. Atlanta traffic is dangerous enough without us having to worry about whether John Oxendine has been out late or wants to get on TV or is, perhaps, just late for dinner.

The commissioner's petulant defense of his childish behavior comes in the hackneyed form of partisan blame. Evil Democrats have conspired to take away his toys, he says, and for no good reason at all. He has even been quoted as suggesting that his effectiveness in rooting out those guilty for church arson is behind the liberal conspiracy to deprive him of that cool blue light and that neat-o siren on his shiny free car that went "woo-woo-woo!"

But the fact is that a statewide elected official is now unable to perform one of his elective duties due to his own irresponsibility. It is truly dismaying that John Oxendine, our elected insurance commissioner, is too immature to be trusted with the basic tools of his profession.

But there's a silver lining here. While he may still be driving yet another state-issued car, Georgia's roads are at least a little safer now that "Johnny on the Spot" has been relieved of his noisy little toys.??

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