Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater wants the state Cabinet to reconsider how it handled the controversial change in leadership at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
But Gov. Rick Scott isn’t backing the request. Instead, the governor would like the Cabinet to discuss making additional leadership changes at the Office of Insurance Regulation, the Office of Financial Regulation and the Department of Revenue.
Atwater sent a letter Tuesday to Scott expressing concern with the way longtime FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey left the agency’s top job. Atwater added that even though a replacement was approved last week, a search should be held for a new commissioner.
“A professional search would give the residents of Florida a full and complete understanding of the qualifications of the person selected to lead one of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies, and help reassure the employees of FDLE that the agency’s leadership will be in the hands of a highly qualified individual with an unimpeachable reputation,” Atwater wrote to Scott.
But Scott rejected the request, responding in a letter to Atwater that he wouldn’t support replacing the newly named commissioner “in order to avoid unnecessary turmoil” within the FDLE.
The FDLE commissioner position is a Cabinet-level appointment. The Cabinet last Tuesday approved Scott’s second-term recommendation of Rick Swearingen, the former head of the Capitol Police, as the new FDLE leader.
Cabinet members — Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — said after the meeting they had been advised that Bailey resigned but acknowledged they didn’t inquire into the circumstances.
Scott told reporters that Bailey had “resigned.” Bailey, however, disputed that, telling the Tampa Bay Times that “I did not voluntarily do anything.” A spokeswoman for Scott later that day issued a statement that the governor “thinks it’s important to frequently get new people into government positions of leadership.”
In his letter to Atwater, Scott reiterated that “there are no lifetime appointments in executive government.”
“As you know, I believe that government needs to be more like business and frequently change leadership to bring in new ideas and fresh energy,” Scott wrote.
Scott added: “In that vein, I am hopeful that we can have a discussion at the upcoming Cabinet meeting about how to begin a search for new leadership at the Office of Insurance Regulation, the Office of Financial Regulation and the Department of Revenue so we can get fresh ideas into those Cabinet positions at the start of a second term. Your input on these financial areas will be important.”
Atwater, in his letter to Scott, noted how the narrative about Bailey’s ouster has changed in the past week. Atwater also said he should have reached out to Bailey in December when the former commissioner left office.
“I cannot speak for the other members of the Cabinet, but to the extent that the manner in which my office reacted to the notification of his resigning contributed to the current situation, I am prepare to accept my share of the responsibility,” Atwater wrote.
A spokesman for Bondi said “we are actively reviewing the matter within our office.”
And Putnam, who has voiced displeasure over the past week about how the FDLE leadership change was handled, said his office is determining what, if any, action can be taken.
“And so we’re evaluating what options are out there, whether it’s legislative or Cabinet-based options,” Putnam said in an interview with The News Service of Florida “We’re gathering up all the options that are available to us under the statutes and under the constitution.”\
Two days after last week’s Cabinet meeting, the Tampa Bay Times reported that longtime Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, another Cabinet appointee, is under pressure to resign as head of the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
The governor’s office said Thursday it did not have an announcement. But Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said that “just like in business — it is good to get fresh ideas and new leadership.”
Putnam said a strong Cabinet system needs to be maintained as Scott and all three Republican Cabinet members begin their second terms.
“There is a very clear path laid out for more than just one person to be involved in the hiring and firing of Cabinet agency heads,” Putnam said.
In the letter to Scott, Atwater suggested the process to make Cabinet-level appointments needs to be discussed at an upcoming Cabinet meeting.
“The residents of the state are owed a process that provides for complete transparency in the selection of Cabinet agency leadership,” Atwater wrote.
Earlier in the day, Democratic lawmakers said there was a “misuse of power” by Scott in changing FDLE leadership that “smacks of shenanigans.”
But other than voicing displeasure, they aren’t prepared to take action.
“The fact that the governor has chosen to remove the director causes consternation for me and other citizens of this state,” said Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. “I feel the integrity of the department is being questioned.”
Joyner and House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said they hope members of the Cabinet will readdress the issue. Also, Joyner and Pafford said the state Commission on Ethics should review the role of Scott and members of his staff in Bailey’s exit.
However, the Democratic lawmakers won’t file the ethics complaint, Joyner said. “If it was done by any of us, they’d say, ‘Oh it’s all political,’ ” Joyner said.
For now, it doesn’t appear lawmakers will take up the matter.
“There are appropriate venues for investigating allegations of wrongdoing and ensuring due process,” House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said in a statement Tuesday. “The reports are concerning but it is yet to be seen how much of this is just ugly politics.”