In one of his boldest moves as he forms his new administration, incoming Republican Gov. Charlie Crist tapped former Attorney General Bob Butterworth - once state government's most prominent Democrat - to head Florida's long-troubled child welfare agency.
"They don't come any finer; the best attorney general Florida has ever had, " Crist, the state's current attorney general, said Tuesday.
"He is a great public servant, " Crist added. "Most importantly, he's my friend. I have followed some great public servants in the offices that I have held, and following Gen. Butterworth was a difficult task."
Dubbed a "fixer" by Crist, Butterworth long ago gained a reputation for cleaning up scandalized agencies and boards - including the Florida Highway Patrol, the city of Sunrise, and the Broward Sheriff's Office.
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But the former prosecutor and judge, currently St. Thomas University law school dean, acknowledged that the Department of Children & Families could provide his most daunting challenge yet.
"It is an enormous task . . . the most demanding job that you know when you're going into it, you're probably not going to do all you want to do. But you want to move the ball as far forward as you can, " said Butterworth, promising "a full assessment" of DCF before making specific recommendations.
Butterworth's three DCF predecessors resigned under high-profile pressure, with outgoing chief Lucy Hadi quitting after a judge threatened her with jail time for allowing mentally ill inmates to languish in jail longer than the law allows.
When his appointment was announced, Butterworth stood next to St. Thomas' president, Msgr. Franklyn M. Casale. Butterworth later quipped that it would not hurt to have a "man of the cloth" by his side.
His political experience aside, Butterworth can identify with the sense of suffering struggling families can experience. Just one day before he was first elected attorney general in 1986, Butterworth's ex-wife, Saundra Butterworth, shot and killed their 16-year-old son, Robert "Bobby" III, in a Miami parking lot. She told a police dispatcher she cursed her estranged husband, and then turned a gun on herself.
As attorney general, Butterworth gained experience with DCF's most intractable mandate around 1997 when he took over responsibility for child welfare legal work in two of the state's largest and most urbanized districts - which included Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
In a 2004 report, the Florida Bar said DCF's legal department was "trying to steer an aircraft carrier-sized legal operation with a rudder full of holes" - but praised the two offices run by Butterworth for having "more staff, better office environments . . . [and] lower caseloads."
Together with Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, Butterworth also launched the state's second pilot program, in which the county took over child-abuse investigations in Broward in 1998. Three other sheriff's offices followed suit; the programs have been hailed as the best in the state by legislative auditors.
The appointment, one of several announced by Crist and his transition team in recent days, took most child advocates by surprise. Almost since its inception, DCF - and its predecessor agency - has been a target, drawing the most fire in 2002 when a Miami foster child, 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, was lost. She has not been found. Hundreds of children in Florida have also died after DCF investigators repeatedly failed to properly look into abuse complaints.
Andrea Moore, who heads Florida's Children First, a child advocacy group, said Butterworth's appointment showed "real promise for the children, families and vulnerable adults that DCF was designed to serve."
Miami's top juvenile judge, Cindy Lederman, was more cautious. She said Miami's privately run foster-care agency, Our Kids, has "made remarkable progress" in recent years "in spite of DCF. It's almost a matter of staying out of our way, " she added.
"The test will be whether the new secretary can persuade the governor and the Legislature to make these children a priority, " she said. "It is a matter of changing the culture in Florida, and getting the Legislature and executive to have compassion for these children - because there really hasn't been in the past."
Advocates say one of DCF's biggest problems is the lack of money. DCF has a nearly $3 billion budget and employs more than 13,000 people. Butterworth initially declined to say whether he would ask for more.
Later, Butterworth said Crist "will put additional resources in" DCF, adding however that Crist "will be limited like any governor will be as to how many resources he can put into any one particular agency."
'FLORIDA NEEDS HIM'
Crist said he has not discussed details with Butterworth, but had been impressed with Butterworth's leadership and compassion since inheriting the AG's office four years ago.
"The most important thing a government can do is protect people, " Crist said. "He is the right man at the right time for the right job. Florida needs him."
The appointment enabled Crist to keep a promise to voters that he would form a bipartisan administration, and Democrats praised him almost immediately.
Butterworth, who led the attorney general's office for 16 years before term limits forced him out, was credited with bringing a greater degree of professionalism to the office, and with setting consumer protection as the office's top priority. Under his tenure, the number of attorneys working for the office quadrupled.
He negotiated an $11.3 billion settlement with the major tobacco companies on Florida's behalf, arguing that cigarettes had cost state taxpayers billions of dollars in public insurance reimbursement.
Butterworth's political career seemingly ended in 2002 when a relative newcomer to public office, Jeff Atwater, beat him for a state Senate seat in Broward and Palm Beach counties. It was a race many expected Butterworth to win handily.
Though Butterworth had campaigned for decades as a moderate, Atwater - who broke fundraising records for the high-profile race - had tarred the then-attorney general as a tax-raising liberal.
At the news conference Tuesday, the Democrat joked about being picked by the Republican Crist to run DCF.
"You're not a Democrat?" Butterworth asked Crist.
"You're not a Republican?" Crist joked back.
"I used to be one, " Butterworth said.