State Politics

Aides to governor and Cabinet spar over making agency changes

Gov. Rick Scott’s planned purge of the leaders of three state agencies is hitting roadblocks as Cabinet members say he’s moving too hastily and not giving the embattled directors a chance to defend themselves.

Scott’s office floated new performance measures for all three officials Wednesday, in advance of a Cabinet meeting next week. But he ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from aides to Cabinet members, who wondered why the agencies themselves aren’t being given more of a say in how they are evaluated.

“We’re trying to do it on the fly,” said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Awater’s chief Cabinet aide, Robert Tornillo, who described Scott’s plan as “a stack of performance measures that one office has put together.”

“Did you have input from the agencies on these?’ asked Kent Perez, general counsel to Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Scott’s new performance measures are part of the fallout from the botched dismissal in December of Commissioner Gerald Bailey of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

With Bailey gone, Scott now wants to fire three more agency heads who report to him and the Cabinet. They are state tax regulator Marshall Stranburg, executive director of the Department of Revenue; banking regulator Drew Breakspear, director of the Office of Financial Regulation; and insurance commissioner Kevin McCarty, director of the Office of Insurance Regulation.

Scott has offered no explanations for wanting to dismiss the three, other than to say he wants “new leadership” at the agencies.

Scott Cabinet aide Monica Russell defended the new measures, saying they are based on the agencies’ long-range plans, but she appeared outgunned by aides to Cabinet members, who have vastly greater experience in shaping policy.

“We want to make sure we get this right,” said Russell, who worked on Scott’s campaign for re-election and became his chief Cabinet aide in November. “We’re not trying to rush this.”

The push for new “metrics” follows the botched dismissal of Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who lost his job with no review or public discussion of his performance. That has triggered a lawsuit by news outlets and First Amendment groups, alleging the Sunshine law was broken.

Scott replaced Bailey on an interim basis with another FDLE veteran, Rick Swearingen, whose appointment was later ratified by the Cabinet.

That surprise maneuver gave Scott the unilateral power to appoint a powerful agency head who also reports to the three independently-elected Cabinet members: Atwater, Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Scott’s plan for reviewing performances of agency heads requires that 100 percent of goals be met in some cases. That’s probably unattainable and it would make it easier to justify firing an agency head.

The one closest to the chopping block is McCarty, the insurance regulator since 2003.

Scott’s new measures for judging McCarty would drop requirements that his office “protect the public from illegal or unethical insurance products and practices.”

McCarty, viewed as a pro-consumer regulator, has proven to be a survivor who has endured major changes on the Cabinet and in the governor’s office.

Scott also wants McCarty’s job review to include his and his staff’s role with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. The Scripps/Tribune Capitol Bureau has reported that McCarty paid travel expenses using a credit card issued by NAIC, which is not subject to Florida public records laws.

Bondi is usually Scott’s strongest Cabinet ally, but her aides said agency heads deserve a voice in how they are judged.

“I think we’d need to hear from the agency themselves,” Bondi aide Rob Johnson told Russell. “Are you going to formally invite them?”

“Well, they won’t be on the agenda, obviously, but yes, we’re going to invite them to be here,” Russell replied.

But that process wasn’t Scott’s plan. At the last Cabinet meeting on Feb. 5, Scott said he wanted to discuss the agencies’ performance measures “without them there.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.