The husband of Florida House chief of staff Kathy Mears was handed the top legal job at the state education department last week.
Matthew Mears filled a vacancy created five months ago when his wife, the top aide to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, hired Department of Education lawyer Matt Carson to be the House general counsel.
It’s a unique situation that apparently isn’t covered by state law. Agencies are prohibited from allowing relatives to hire each other, but Kathy Mears doesn’t work for the DOE. Nor did she hire her husband.
Yet she is at the center of the hiring process for two key legal positions at powerful state governmental entities. She hired Carson for a position that oversees a chamber that helps draft policy and the $19 billion state K-12 education budget. Meanwhile Matthew Mears is now chief counsel at a state agency that lobbies the House.
DOE officials won’t say if the $120,000 general counsel job that went to Matthew Mears on Jan. 20 was advertised or if there were other candidates. Kathy Mears and House officials said they didn’t advertise their general counsel position, but they did say it was a formal process in which one other attorney, Stuart Williams, was interviewed. Two other attorneys were asked if they were interested in interviewing, according to the House, but they declined.
Mears, who said she only learned about her husband applying for the DOE job in December, said she didn’t know when she hired Carson in August that her husband would eventually apply for his old job.
“I had no idea Matthew would be interested in a job at the Department of Education or that he would apply for the job four months later,” Mears said in an email Tuesday. Crisafulli said in an email that he did not know Mears’ husband would apply for Carson’s old job until December.
“Kathy told me that her husband was offered the job at the DOE in December, prior to him accepting the position,” Crisafulli said.
Matthew Mears’ application for the job wasn’t stamped “received” by the DOE until Jan. 9 — seven business days before he started. In the application, which he dated Dec. 22, he responded to the question of why he was leaving his job at Holland & Knight.
“(To) accept general counsel position at Florida Department of Education,” he wrote.
To outsiders and ethical experts, the role Kathy Mears played in ultimately creating an opportunity for her husband raises questions about how lucrative state jobs are awarded.
“This doesn’t seem open and transparent,” said Carla Miller, president of City Ethics, a Jacksonville non-profit that provides governments with advice. “You don’t want it to look like you have a tight little circle and that you’re choosing from an in-group. You can do that with a corporation. But people expect their government to be fair.”
At 44, Mears has a legislative resume that dwarfs the experience of Crisafulli and his predecessor, Will Weatherford. Since the 1990s, she has served as a trusted adviser to a number of high-ranking Republicans: former House Speaker Daniel Webster; former Senate presidents Tom Lee and Kenneth Pruitt; and former Gov. Charlie Crist.
She did start the chain of events on Aug. 6 by hiring Carson as the House’s new general counsel, paying him $121,000, an $11,000 increase in what he was earning as the DOE’s general counsel.
Having served as the DOE’s general counsel since Feb. 11, 2013, Carson gave no reason for his departure in a resignation letter to Education Commissioner Pam Stewart dated Aug. 5.
“As you know, today will be my last day as General Counsel for the Department of Education,” Carson wrote. “I have enjoyed working with you, (Chief of Staff) Kathy (Hebda), and the rest of your staff, and am grateful to you for this opportunity.”
The Department of Education declined to say if the job vacancy had been posted, if a search was conducted, and how many other candidates had been interviewed for the position.
Mears said she hired Carson because he came highly recommended by the previous general counsel, Daniel Nordby.
Nordby, who left to join the private law firm Shutts & Bowen, said, “We were in law school together at the University of Florida. I’ve known him in legal practice here and we both worked at the Department of Education. I talked to a few people who I thought would be interested and Matthew Carson was one of the names I recommended.”