Ousted FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey confirmed Tuesday that he met two weeks ago with federal prosecutors, who have been prodded to investigate his dismissal and his claims of political interference by Gov. Rick Scott’s office.
Bailey said he met with members of U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsh’s staff in Tallahassee at their request on March 5 for more than an hour. Bailey wouldn’t say what they talked about and declined further comment. The agency declined to discuss its interest in the case.
“The U.S. attorney’s office does not disclose whether a review is taking place or the status of the review,” spokeswoman Amy Alexander said.
Bailey’s abrupt and unexplained dismissal from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has triggered a lawsuit by dozens of news outlets that are now seeking Bailey’s sworn testimony. News organizations, open government advocates and St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner accuse Scott and all three elected Cabinet members, who also oversee FDLE, of violating the Sunshine Law by forcing Bailey from office with no public discussion or vote.
As part of the lawsuit, Bailey voluntarily agreed on Tuesday to testify under oath in a videotaped deposition on April 22 in Tallahassee.
The request for Bailey’s testimony comes from Sarasota lawyer Andrea Flynn Mogensen, who represents the news organizations in the case, including the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, Associated Press and more than a dozen Florida newspapers and TV stations.
With Scott’s credibility in question and with two Cabinet members likely to run for higher office, the possibility of further political fallout from Bailey’s testimony could speed up negotiations to settle the case before it goes to trial.
But Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Cabinet member and defendant in the lawsuit, objects to taking Bailey’s deposition, according to Mogensen’s paralegal, Michael Barfield. Bondi’s office declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation, and her lawyer has not yet filed a motion to object.
Bondi, Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam are at the center of a controversy that raises questions about routine back-channel discussions among their aides before public votes. Atwater is a possible U.S. Senate candidate next year and Putnam is considered a leading candidate for governor in 2018.
Scott has said the Cabinet members’ aides voiced “no objections” to his call for a change at FDLE in December. But Cabinet members voiced shock over Bailey’s abrupt ouster and Putnam said he was “misled” by Scott’s staff.
Bailey said he was in his office the morning of Dec. 16 when he was ordered by Scott’s former counsel, Pete Antonacci, to immediately vacate his job as FDLE commissioner.
Bailey said Antonacci told him he was acting with the “concurrence” of Cabinet members. Antonacci has declined to comment and Scott has said: “I could have handled it better.”
As Bailey cleaned out his desk, Scott unilaterally replaced him with one of Bailey’s assistants, Rick Swearingen, who had worked closely with Scott and who had overseen the FDLE security detail that protects the governor and First Lady Ann Scott.
Swearingen is a second cousin of Marsh, the U.S. attorney whose office asked to meet with Bailey. FDLE confirmed the relationship Tuesday.
After Scott said Bailey resigned, Bailey told the Herald/Times that Scott was lying and then made a series of detailed allegations of improper interference by Scott’s office or campaign.
Bailey said Scott’s then chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, tried to force him to name a former Orange County court clerk as the target of a criminal investigation. Scott has denied the allegation and Hollingsworth has declined to comment.
Bailey also said Scott’s campaign sought his help in writing a law enforcement platform and asked FDLE agents to transport a low-level campaign worker in a state car, but FDLE refused both requests.
Scott’s office acknowledged the campaign made a mistake and Scott’s campaign wrote a check to the state treasury to cover the estimated transportation costs.
Bailey also said Scott personally asked FDLE to “bring in for a landing” an investigation by an out-of-state law enforcement agency of a prospective Scott appointee to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Scott has denied that allegation.
Two advocacy groups that have been critical of Scott, Integrity Florida and Progress Florida, had both urged the U.S. attorney to look into Bailey’s case after State Attorney Willie Meggs said he saw no evidence of wrongdoing.
Integrity Florida wrote Marsh a letter on Jan. 21, claiming a federal civil rights conspiracy law may have been violated in the incident involving the court clerk. St. Petersburg-based Progress Florida delivered petitions to Marsh’s office on Feb. 18 signed by about 10,000 people supporting a federal review of the case.
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who has called for an outside investigation of the Bailey controversy, said of the U.S. attorney’s interest: “I’m happy to know that our plea to have an outside look at this has been heeded and hopefully we can get to the bottom of what happened.”
Scott and Cabinet members have collectively hired nearly a dozen private attorneys at taxpayer expense, at fees of up to $400 an hour, to defend themselves in the case.