Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater became the first Cabinet member to fully break with Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday after calling for the reopening of the search for a new commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Two other Cabinet members, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, said they were reviewing their options. It was the strongest sign yet that all three elected officials, under fire for not questioning the forced resignation of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, are distancing themselves from Scott, now engulfed in a full-blown crisis barely two weeks into his second term.
Just last week, Atwater, Bondi and Putnam — all Republicans — unanimously supported Scott’s appointment of Rick Swearingen as the new FDLE commissioner.
Scott responded to Atwater’s letter later Tuesday night saying he wanted the Cabinet’s opinions as he seeks to replace heads of three key state agencies, including state Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty.
“There are no lifetime appointments in executive government — just as there are no guaranteed lifetime jobs in the private sector outside of government,’’ Scott wrote. “In that vein, I am hopeful that we can have a discussion at the upcoming Cabinet meeting about how to begin a search for new leadership at the Office of Insurance Regulation, the Office of Financial Regulation and the Department of Revenue so we can get fresh ideas into those Cabinet positions at the start of a second term.’’
Scott went on to say the Cabinet could begin a search for a new FDLE commissioner, however, he added, “I would not support any change to Commissioner Rick Swearingen’s current position during this time in order to avoid unnecessary turmoil.’’
Two leading Democratic state legislators also joined the clamor by calling for a full investigation of the FDLE controversy. House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach called Scott’s handling of FDLE a “disaster” for the state, and Senate Democratic leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa urged citizens to file complaints with the state Commission on Ethics accusing Scott of misusing his office and of official misconduct.
“It’s important that people know that government is being run in a way that people can respect,” Joyner said. “The public deserves answers, and the governor and the Cabinet are the ones who can give us some answers.”
Joyner urged Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, to use the Legislature’s subpoena power to compel witnesses — including Bailey — to testify under oath to eliminate ambiguity about who’s telling the truth.
Gardiner’s spokeswoman, Katherine Betta, said the Senate would most likely examine the issue through its power to confirm Scott’s appointees to run state agencies, including the leader of FDLE.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said the Herald/Times reports “are concerning but it is yet to be seen how much of this is just ugly politics.”
The controversy is not likely to subside before the next Cabinet meeting Feb. 5.
“The residents of this state are owed a process that provides for complete transparency in the selection of Cabinet agency leadership,” Atwater wrote in a letter hand-delivered to Scott on Tuesday afternoon in which he also took part of the responsibility for the way Bailey’s ouster was orchestrated.
In raising doubts about Scott’s selection of Swearingen, Atwater added: “Those serving, or interested in serving, the people of Florida deserve the public confidence that they have been selected on their qualifications and merits.”
Swearingen, 55, the former head of the Capitol police, has been commissioner for one week. As Scott’s hand-picked candidate, he was the only person considered to replace Bailey.
As head of an independent law enforcement agency, Bailey reported not only to Scott but to three independently elected Cabinet members. All three said they were not aware in advance of Scott’s pre-Christmas plan to oust Bailey, and all three have been vilified by Florida editorial writers, columnists and cartoonists for not asking more questions sooner.
Putnam was the first Cabinet member to criticize Scott for mishandling the case, and on Tuesday he said: “I am exploring my options at this time.”
Bondi’s office said she was “reviewing the entire matter.”
Putnam and Atwater are often mentioned as likely Republican candidates for governor in 2018.
Bailey’s law enforcement career came to an abrupt end on Dec. 16 when Scott’s top lawyer coerced him to resign and gave him three hours to pack up and leave after nearly 30 years.
When Scott told reporters that Bailey resigned, Bailey called Scott a liar. Bailey later told the Herald/Times that Scott and his top aides repeatedly meddled in FDLE operations for more than a year, including pressuring Bailey to smear a court clerk in Orange County by falsely calling her a target of a criminal probe after two prison inmates used forged court documents to escape in 2013.
In that case, Bailey said, he prevented an abuse of state police power for political reasons by Scott’s administration.
He said Scott’s former chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, and Frank Collins, a press aide at the time and now a deputy chief of staff, berated him for refusing to falsely name the clerk.
Scott’s office calls the allegation untrue, and Hollingsworth and Collins have refused repeated requests for comment.
No one in the Orange County clerk’s office was accused of wrongdoing in the escapes, and officials in the clerk’s office said on Tuesday that they were stunned by Bailey’s allegations.
Herald/Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.
Gov. Scott’s response to Jeff Atwater
Thank you for your letter and support of FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen. As you indicate in your letter, I believe there is always room for improvement in any system and I look forward to any ideas you would like to share for an improved process in the next Cabinet meeting.
As you know, I believe that government needs to be more like business and frequently change leadership to bring in new ideas and fresh energy. There are no lifetime appointments in executive government — just as there are no guaranteed lifetime jobs in the private sector outside of government.
In that vein, I am hopeful that we can have a discussion at the upcoming Cabinet meeting about how to begin a search for new leadership at the Office of Insurance Regulation, the Office of Financial Regulation and the Department of Revenue so we can get fresh ideas into those Cabinet positions at the start of a second term. Your input on these financial areas will be important.
As you suggest, there can also be a cabinet search commenced for other FDLE candidates; however, I would not support any change to Commissioner Rick Swearingen’s current position during this time in order to avoid unnecessary turmoil within an organization of great men and women working hard every day to keep Florida safe.