Free-market conservative leads Gov. Rick Scott’s jobs agency

The Department of Economic Opportunity is one of the most critical agencies in Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, and it has run through four directors — two permanent, two interim — since it launched 16 months ago.

After the fleeting tenures of three bureaucrats and a banker, Scott’s handpicked director, Jesse Panuccio, began his term as the agency’s fifth director three weeks ago.

Panuccio, a 32-year-old attorney, is an outside-the-box choice for jobs chief. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2006 and has been on Scott’s legal team since 2011, becoming the governor’s chief litigant last year.

After defending some of Scott’s most controversial laws in the courtroom, Panuccio faces the crucial task of executing the governor’s job-creation strategy from the state’s official boardroom.

“I chose Jesse for three reasons,” Scott said in a statement. “He is a problem solver, he is a skilled manager of people and he is experienced at holding people and organizations accountable.”

After graduating from Harvard Law, Panuccio clerked for a federal judge and then joined a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. The New Jersey native said he took the Florida Bar Exam after spending much of his childhood vacationing in the Sunshine State, and was drawn to Scott’s campaign message in 2010. He left Washington and joined the governor’s transition team as deputy general counsel in January 2011.

Throughout Panuccio’s brief professional career, he has fought legal battles in support of conservative causes ranging from gun rights to traditional marriage to state’s rights. His new position will require a full embrace of Scott’s conservative job-creation agenda: less regulation, taxation and litigation.

“My overall view is that the economy, the free market flourishes when government gets out of the way,” he said.

The Department of Economic Opportunity, or DEO, is 1,600-person agency responsible for overseeing many of the state’s economic development initiatives. Created by Scott in 2011, DEO runs Florida’s unemployment compensation system, collaborates job training efforts with regional workforce boards and oversees business incentives programs. As the $140,000-a-year director, Panuccio leads efforts to coordinate local and regional job-creation efforts, and implement an overarching economic development vision for the future.

He shares Scott’s small-government approach to creating jobs, and embraces using taxpayer incentives to draw companies to Florida.

“I do think incentives, especially in a recessionary period like this, are a targeted way of reducing taxation and enhancing the business climate for competitive projects,” he said. “It is a reality right now that we’re competing with other states and other countries for these companies.”

So far, Scott’s approach on jobs has had mixed results. Florida’s economy has improved in the last two years with a rapid decline in unemployment, but job growth is considerably slower than the national pace and wages continue to lag.

Meanwhile, DEO has come under fire — and a federal probe — for restricting access to unemployment compensation benefits, making Florida one of the least generous states in the nation for those who are eligible for aid.

At DEO, turnover has been particularly problematic, with the agency’s two permanent directors leaving after only a few months on the job, and a handful of other top officials resigning abruptly in recent months.

The agency’s first director, Doug Darling, resigned last January, three months after DEO launched. Darling clashed with Scott’s chief of staff and was forced out. He was replaced on an interim basis by Cynthia Lorenzo, who resigned from the agency five months later to help start a lobbying firm.

Scott looked to the private sector to select the agency’s next permanent director, hiring career banker Hunting Deutsch in April.

Deutsch resigned seven months later, after The Florida Current reported that he had received jobless benefits for almost two years and took trips to Europe while accepting government aid.

Scott — who slashed the jobless aid program during his first term — said he did not know that his handpicked jobs chief had received 21 months worth of government benefits.

Two days after Deutsch’s abrupt resignation, Scott tapped Panuccio to fill his position.

It was Scott’s second time promoting Panuccio in the last 10 months, with the governor hailing his top lawyer as “the best person for the [DEO] job.”

Panuccio credits hard work and a string of influential mentors for his rapid rise through the fields of law and government.

He met one of those mentors, Charles Cooper, while working as an associate at the Washington, D.C., law firm Cooper & Kirk.

At the firm — which is described in Legal Times as a “top choice” for “plaintiffs who want to sue the federal government” — Panuccio litigated cases ranging from challenging gun restrictions in Chicago and Texas to fighting to uphold California’s Proposition 8, which outlaws gay marriage.

“I think it’s fair to say our [firm] has a conservative hue to its institutional identity,” said Cooper, who spoke highly of Panuccio’s work on behalf of clients like the National Rifle Association and ProtectMarriage.com. “And I think Jesse felt himself at home here. He is a Republican and he was attracted to the administration of a conservative Republican governor.”

After joining the Scott administration, Panuccio continued to fight for conservative causes in court — this time in defense of Florida’s most controversial laws. As Scott’s general counsel, Panuccio led a legal team tasked with defending constitutionally questionable proposals enacted by Scott. After his election, Scott’s deeply conservative agenda sparked a deluge of constitutional lawsuits over plans that included drug tests for welfare recipients, bans on gun inquiries by doctors, purging noncitizens from voter rolls and a required 3 percent pension contribution by state workers.

The Florida Supreme Court upheld the pension law; other cases are pending on appeal.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who will oversee Panuccio’s confirmation process, has said in the past that he believes the director of DEO should have experience as a business professional.

But Gaetz said he will support Panuccio’s confirmation because he has confidence in Scott’s decision and overall stewardship of the state’s economy.

“Unemployment is down and jobs are up, so I think the governor is entitled to his choice to head the agency,” he said, adding that Panuccio would easily be confirmed by the Senate.

While the last two directors of the jobs agency each lasted less than seven months, Gaetz – who sponsored the legislation creating DEO – said he hopes Panuccio will stay through the end of Scott’s first term, which runs through 2014.

If he does, it would be one of the longest tenures of his brief professional career.

Six years after graduating from law school, Panuccio has already held five different professional titles, rising quickly through the ranks of government to become the state’s youngest agency head.

Cooper, a former Reagan official who has seen many of his protégés — including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — ascend to political prominence, said Panuccio may have his sights on higher office.

“I have no doubt that this is the next step on Jesse’s path to something more,” Cooper said. “He has the kind of personal attributes that I think would serve him well if he did pursue his own kind of political future.”

Asked about whether he’s prepping for a career in politics, the 32-year-old threw his head back and laughed, straightened his suit, and gave a polished answer:

“Right now, I’m focused on this job and making sure that this agency is transparent, accountable and efficient.”