Clash between Gov. Rick Scott, CFO Jeff Atwater over insurance post goes public Friday

CFO Jeff Atwater supports Bill Hager, a Republican state representative from Palm Beach County, to be the new insurance commissioner.
CFO Jeff Atwater supports Bill Hager, a Republican state representative from Palm Beach County, to be the new insurance commissioner. AP

A clash of wills between Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater over choosing Florida’s next insurance commissioner threatens to come to a head Friday.

Nearly four months after Kevin McCarty announced his resignation as the state’s chief insurance regulator, Scott and Atwater cannot agree on a successor, as state law requires.

The two Republican leaders also can’t even agree on whether McCarty’s job will be vacant next Monday, his initial resignation date.

“We are going to have a new insurance commissioner May 2,” Scott told reporters in Tampa on Thursday.

The prediction may be overly optimistic because Atwater rejects Scott’s timetable.

Scott and the Cabinet will interview three more candidates Friday at special meeting called by the governor for 9 a.m. at the Capitol.

Neither he nor at least two of the three Cabinet members will physically be present.

With Scott determined to hire McCarty’s replacement by Friday, the four officials will convene by phone from four different locations.

The candidates will be interviewed by speakerphone with no face-to-face contact.

Scott interviewed two of the candidates in person in Tampa Thursday. Both are deputy commissioners who report to McCarty:

▪  Rich Robleto, 65, rejoined the agency in 2014 after seven years as executive director of Florida Healthy Kids Corp., which provides health insurance to children.

Robleto said his minimum acceptable salary is $200,000, the maximum available.

▪  David Altmaier, 34, who joined the agency in 2008, has held a variety of posts and currently directs financial oversight of property and casualty insurance companies. He said his minimum acceptable salary is $180,000.

▪ Atwater suggested a third new candidate: Eric Johnson, 33, who joined the insurance office five years ago and has been the chief actuary for the past 13 months, reporting to Robleto.

Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Florida State, said he would accept a minimum salary of $185,000.

Scott has twice offered the insurance regulator’s job to Jeff Bragg, 67, of Palm Harbor, a former federal official, most recently Tuesday when he offered Bragg a starting salary of $150,000 a year.

Atwater twice refused to support Bragg and favors Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, 68, an arbitrator and expert witness in insurance cases. But he does not have Scott’s support.

The Office of Insurance Regulation, with 263 employees, regulates property, life, health and auto insurance and workers compensation.

As the hiring impasse threatened to linger beyond the June 1 start of hurricane season, McCarty offered to postpone his departure and said it would provide a smooth transition.

Scott rejected the offer and insists McCarty’s original departure date cannot be changed.

“When somebody resigns, they resign,” Scott said Thursday.

Atwater disagreed and said McCarty can stay put because Scott and the Cabinet never took a vote accepting McCarty’s resignation.

“The governor’s office has chosen to quibble about his resignation letter,” Atwater said. “We should take full advantage of Commissioner McCarty’s gracious offer.”

Atwater’s refusal to kowtow to Scott’s wishes is partly political, but is also steeped in the law. The CFO works most closely with the insurance commissioner — more closely than the governor.

The nasty flare-up between Scott and Atwater carries echoes of a previous personnel move that ended disastrously.

Scott unilaterally decided to replace Gerald Bailey as head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2014 without public discussion or a vote.

The action damaged the collegial atmosphere on the Cabinet and prompted tighter rules for evaluating state agency heads who report to both Scott and Cabinet members.

Times staff writer Alli Knothe contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.