Bill Johnson abruptly announced last month that he is leaving as Florida Secretary of Commerce, but the travel — and monetary — perks for the state’s top economic development recruiter are still rolling in.
Johnson, who is also stepping down as CEO of Enterprise Florida, has already collected over $1 million in retirement benefits from taxpayers since July and stands to gain $132,500 more in June when his Enterprise Florida severance package kicks in. Plus, he’ll join state job recruiters on two more international trips over the next two months.
When a contingent of Florida business and government officials head for Korea and Taiwan on Friday to start a nine-day trade mission, Johnson will be among them. Then in May, Johnson is accompanying a four-day Enterprise Florida trade mission to Mexico City.
“Bill Johnson is still the president and CEO of Enterprise Florida,” Stephen Lawson, director of communications for Enterprise Florida, said in justifying the trips.
Johnson committed to those trips before it was announced March 28 that he was leaving Enterprise Florida, according to Fort Lauderdale attorney Alan Becker, vice chairman of Enterprise Florida’s board of directors. Business leaders from Florida on those trips and international companies are expecting to see Johnson on those missions, Becker said.
“You don’t just abandon them,” Becker said, noting that Gov. Rick Scott has not yet announced a replacement for Johnson.
Florida does not have a traditional commerce department like many other states. Instead, 20 years ago, Florida created Enterprise Florida to be a quasi-governmental entity with a 64-member board of directors that runs it largely like a private business. About 90 percent of its operations are funded by taxpayers.
For much of Scott’s tenure, Enterprise Florida has been a cherished organization charged with leading his efforts to recruit companies from other states and nations to move to Florida to create jobs — a central theme of Scott’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns for governor.
But since the Republican-led Legislature snubbed the governor in March and rejected his plea for $250 million for a job recruitment program, Scott has outlined big changes to the agency. He has ordered Enterprise Florida to cut staff and office space and has vowed to retool its direction.
Underscoring how Enterprise Florida is being minimized, Scott’s office this week released a new organizational chart that shows Johnson (and his successor) will no longer report directly to the governor. Instead, until he officially leaves this summer, Johnson will report to a deputy chief of staff under Scott. And two operations that had reported to Enterprise Florida — the tourism arm Visit Florida and space-job promoter Space Florida — will also now report directly to Scott’s office.
When Scott said in March that Johnson was “transitioning out of the organization,” he did not specify a timetable or say whether Johnson had resigned or was fired.
The board’s vice chairman, Alan Becker, said Johnson will be leaving June 24 and will be eligible for a $132,500 severance payment. According to his contract, severance would only be triggered if he was terminated without cause.
On Thursday, Becker, a founding shareholder of Becker & Poliakoff, P.A. in Fort Lauderdale, said Johnson will be leaving on June 24 and will be eligible for a $132,500 severance payment. According to Johnson’s contract, severance is only triggered if he is terminated without cause. Johnson has not submitted a letter of resignation.
Lawson would not confirm Johnson’s departure date.
“The board of directors has not taken action on Bill Johnson,” Lawson said. “This issue will be discussed at the board of directors meeting on May 11.”
Johnson, hired in January 2015, makes an annual salary of $265,000 and is eligible for up to $100,000 in bonuses, of which he has already received $50,000. In addition, Johnson’s contract includes a $600 a month car allowance. His contract was supposed to run through June 30, 2017. That contract states that his base salary and incentives are supposed to be paid for by private sector funds raised by Enterprise Florida.
That compensation is in addition to more than $1 million that Johnson, 61, has received from Florida’s state retirement system since July 2015.
Because Johnson worked for 30 years as a government bureaucrat in Miami-Dade before taking the Enterprise Florida position, he was allowed to benefit from a government windfall from the retirement system. Johnson participated in the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan from July 1, 2010 until June 30, 2015. That allowed Johnson to collect a $914,915.37 lump sum DROP payout from the retirement system in July 2015.
That same month, he collected the first monthly check of $14,254.47 that will be paid to him for the rest of his life — including a 3 percent cost of living adjustment annually. Johnson has collected more than $128,000 in monthly payments as of March.
Johnson’s Enterprise Florida contract included a special clause that allowed him to remain as an employee with Miami-Dade County’s Water and Sewer Department for the first six months while he worked at Enterprise Florida, allowing him to hold two jobs for the first part of 2015. He was allowed to do his former job until June 30, 2015, which was the same date he became eligible for his DROP payout.
Johnson was barred from being eligible for additional retirement benefits from the state while employed by Enterprise Florida.
I do think we probably made a mistake going with a guy from the bureaucracy and not someone from the business world.
State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota
Johnson was probably the wrong guy for the position from the start, said State Sen. Nancy Detert, the only state senator on the Enterprise Florida board of directors. The Sarasota County Republican said Johnson is more of a career bureaucrat who clearly knew how to use the state retirement benefits system to his advantage.
“I do think we probably made a mistake going with a guy from the bureaucracy and not someone from the business world,” Detert said.
Detert said while Johnson won’t be employed much longer, she doesn’t have any problem with him taking the trips to Asia or Mexico. She said he is doing what he was hired to do, and as long as he’s employed he should continue fostering international relationships that benefit Florida and state businesses.
Starting Friday, Johnson will visit Seoul for four days, then move on to Taipei. During the trip, the group will meet with U.S. Embassy staff and business leaders in both countries, and participate in two Florida business seminars. In all, 28 business and government officials, including Johnson, have signed up for that trip.
Johnson’s Korea travel costs total about $3,600, Lawson said.
At least 73 people are expected to join Johnson on the trip to Mexico from May 23-26. Lawson said there is no estimate for Johnson’s travel to Mexico.
He said for both trips, Johnson’s travel expenses will be covered by funding from private sources, not from funding from the state.
Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.