If all had gone as planned, the ouster of Gerald Bailey from his post as commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would have been a quiet one. It would have looked like a typical resignation. After all, Gov. Rick Scott had just been re-elected and he was making many new appointments to begin his second term.
But that was not the case. Bailey’s hasty departure raised a lot of red flags.
FDLE is not an executive branch agency; it is a Cabinet agency. The entire Cabinet provides oversight of its activities, not just the governor. This safeguard was put in place to prevent the governor or any one elected official from politicizing the office — ironic since that is precisely what happened in this case.
Despite not having the power to unilaterally fire the head of the FDLE, Scott sent his outgoing legal counsel, Pete Antonacci, to deliver the ultimatum to Bailey to resign or be forced out. Bailey admirably served as commissioner under three different governors and was with the agency for over two decades.
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Scott didn’t afford Bailey the courtesy of a face-to-face explanation. Nor was he given the opportunity to resign with dignity. He was forced to leave the office within hours under a shroud of secrecy. Had he bothered to meet, he would learn that Bailey was thinking of retiring a few months later.
Antonacci told a stunned Bailey that Scott had Cabinet support to force him out.
But the Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — were caught off guard when questioned about Bailey being forced out.
The Governor’s Office had apparently notified each of the Cabinet members, through their staff, that Bailey had resigned. Bailey, who had avoided responding to the news media, confirmed that he did not voluntarily resign. The Governor’s Office, which had insisted that he resigned, grudgingly admitted it wanted to make a change at FDLE.
Scott, who unceremoniously dumped the well-respected commissioner with no reason, advance notice or due process, referred to Bailey’s contention that he was forced out as “petty” — a pretty galling comment from someone who just ended a dignified career unjustly.
Had Scott followed the protocol and gone to the Cabinet to seek the change at FDLE, it is unclear what might have happened. Since the governor’s vote is a tiebreaker, he would have needed only one other Cabinet member to go along. None has indicated what he or she would have done, but on Tuesday Atwater became the first to break with Scott on this issue, calling for reopening a search for Bailey’s replacement. On Wednesday, Bondi said the firing “raises serious questions, and those questions should be answered.”
Government in the sunshine exists so the people’s business will be aired in public. That certainly did not happen. I don’t fault Bondi, Atwater or Putnam for not having immediate answers, as it seems they, too, were kept in the dark. It does seem, however, that their first instinct was to protect Scott and defend his duplicity. Why didn’t any of them question the abrupt retirement/resignation? Or reach out to Commissioner Bailey, whom all three claimed led FDLE in an exemplary fashion?
As more details emerge about what was asked of Bailey, many questions remain:
Who made the decision to get rid of Bailey? Was it the newly crowned chief of staff from Louisiana, Melissa Sellers, who didn’t think Bailey was bowing adequately to her demands? Was it the governor who couldn’t get the straight-laced lawman to bend the rules? Why did those in the Scott inner circle want him gone? Was it politically motivated? Were unethical or illegal requests being made of Bailey?
This is a big deal. The governor didn’t have the authority to unilaterally force out the head of FDLE, a Cabinet agency. It’s likely the governor, through his top staff, lied to the other three members of the Cabinet.
Most importantly, laws may have been broken by those sworn into office to uphold them. What else is happening that we don’t know about?
A full and thorough investigation is warranted and should be conducted by an outside agency — either the U.S. Department of Justice or State Attorney Willie Meggs of the 2nd Judicial Circuit, which includes Tallahassee.
The integrity and independence of FDLE in its investigative role must not be compromised.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.