Gov. Rick Scott, Cabinet OK national searches for two agency heads

The bosses of two of the state’s biggest agencies got new job titles Tuesday that they didn’t expect: “interim.”

Commissioner Rick Swearingen of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Secretary Jon Steverson of the Department of Environmental Protection will keep their $150,000-a-year jobs for now. But they have to fight to keep them because they are the first state officials affected by new personnel rules that require a nationwide search when a vacancy arises at the helm of a state agency that reports to Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected Cabinet members.

Scott appointed Swearingen and Steverson to their posts last December, but both executives got caught in the crossfire between Scott and the Senate during the recently-ended legislative session.

After senators refused to confirm them, Scott reappointed them Monday, and Cabinet members went along with the decisions Tuesday. But they are interim appointments, and the two can only keep their jobs after a nationwide search that could include interviews with other candidates.

Swearingen and Steverson are the only officials who report to the governor and Cabinet who were not confirmed by the Senate. Scott cited the Senate’s “inaction” Tuesday in calling for a national search for both positions.

Scott and Cabinet members approved new rules in March following the abrupt ouster of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey in December.

The new rules require that position descriptions include a list of duties, minimum qualifications and compensation. It also establishes new application deadlines. Scott and the Cabinet said they hoped to appoint heads of both agencies in June.

Scott and the Cabinet set an application deadline of May 31, leaving about three weeks for them to evaluate all applications in advance of a final decision at the next Cabinet meeting on June 23, a date already set for a six-month job review of Swearingen’s job performance.

The officials did not discuss terms of a national search other than to seek applications on peoplefirst.myflorida.com, a state jobs portal.

“We’ll do a national search. If you have ideas, bring them,” Scott told Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Putnam dismissed the notion that the search could be purely for show because Swearingen and Steverson appear to have the inside track to keep their jobs.

“The Cabinet has recently developed an entirely new set of reforms,” Putnam told reporters. “It will be posted. It will be a national search and we encourage resumes to come in.”

Attorney General Pam Bondi, the Cabinet member who works most closely with FDLE, said she would give weight to an applicant’s length of time with the agency — a factor that favors Swearingen.

“We’ve got to have stability in that agency,” Bondi said.

The third Cabinet member, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, tried unsuccessfully to call for a new vote on Swearingen’s status, and one of his top deputies in the CFO’s office, Jay Etheridge, is interested in the job.

Swearingen was Scott’s handpicked choice for the top job at FDLE after Bailey was forced out on Dec. 16 by Scott’s former attorney, Pete Antonacci. The career law enforcement officer said he welcomed the competition and scrutiny as he seeks to win reappointment to his job.

“I’m not afraid of a nationwide search,” said Swearingen, who has worked at FDLE for 31 years. “I’ll submit my resume, just like everyone else.”

He said he agreed with the officials’ decision to set out specific criteria for future job evaluations.

“I would much rather know what is expected of me than some subjective measures,” Swearingen said. “I’m okay with the entire process.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Related stories from Miami Herald