The Florida Department of Revenue has ousted top employees and kept positions vacant for months to make room for many of Gov. Rick Scott's loyal staffers who will be out of their jobs when he leaves office this year, even though none of them have any experience in that department's main responsibility, tax administration.
The shakeup was managed by Leon Biegalski, the governor's surprise pick to head the Department of Revenue in March 2016, and key jobs were given to former staff at the governor's Office of Policy and Budget (OPB).
DOR is overseen by the governor and three independent Cabinet officers, and is therefore a safer place to guarantee job security than the governor's budget office, which will get a new chief executive after the November elections.
But just days after Scott signed his last budget, on Friday, April 6, Biegalski and his aides ordered the ouster of the two top officials of the Office of Property Tax Oversight and by the next Monday the replacements from OPB were settled in. The division is charged with monitoring local government tax rolls to make sure they are in compliance with state law, providing oversight of value adjustment board proceedings and approving the annual budgets of property appraisers and most tax collectors.
In the last month, Biegalski has replaced most of the top staff of the division with people close to him or the governor. When asked for an explanation, he issued a statement and refused an interview.
“At the Department of Revenue, we are focused on providing the highest level of service to those we serve,” Biegalski said. “I have high standards and expect each member of my team to serve with integrity and a commitment to excellence. I’m proud of the highly qualified team we have in place with a demonstrated history of successful public service that I know will directly benefit everyone we serve.”
The changes include:
▪ Brandi Gunder, 34, a lawyer and the governor's former education budget coordinator whose resume includes no tax policy experience, was named director of the Office of Property Tax Oversight. She replaced Maurice Gogarty, who had 30 years experience and was hired by the agency after a nationwide search. She is making $117,000, $6,000 more than Gogarty. According to her resume, she started with the state in 2010 after graduating from Florida State University College of Law. She worked as a legislative analyst in the Florida Senate Republican Office before joining Scott's staff.
The lengthy job description for Gogarty included a requirement that the candidate have "5+ years of ad valorem/property tax administration or appraisal experience. Managerial experience, preferably of a tax administration program." Candidates who were members of a professional appraisal organization and have completed specified appraisal courses were preferred. Gunder said she had managed a staff of seven but had none of the technical background.
DOR communications director Valerie Wickboldt said Gunder was qualified because of her "experience in overseeing multibillion dollar state initiatives, managing a team of experts including budget analysts, carrying out reporting responsibilities, and working with elected officials and stakeholders," and her legal background will help her develop administrative rules.
▪ Tom "TJ" Adams, 31, a lawyer who previously worked as a general government policy chief in the governor's budget office but who has no tax experience, was named deputy director of the PTO office. He replaced Timisha Brooks, a lawyer who had worked her way up in the division since 2010. He is making $90,000. DOR spokesman Alex Bickley said Adams had "shown a tremendous effort in pushing strategic initiatives and the ability to serve in a leadership role" since he joined the agency in November.
▪ Shelby Cecil, 24, a former OPB education analyst with no tax experience, was named budget manager for PTO, in charge of reviewing and approving all county property appraiser and most tax collector budgets across the state. That job has been open for months and was previously held by a staffer with 34 years experience in tax administration who retired. Cecil, who holds an undergraduate degree in political science, joined the governor's office as a scheduling intern in January 2015 while a senior at Florida State University. She is making $60,000. Bickley said she is qualified because while working for the governor she "oversaw $2.5 billion in state budget spending over various programs" and "analyzed and reviewed complex financial issues and forecasted the future impacts of proposed planning, budget and policy decisions."
▪ Shawn Blackburn, 47, a long-time friend of Biegalski, who came to the agency from the Department of Financial Services, was named Resource Management Process Manager and is Cecil's boss. According to his resume, he has 12 years in government but no college degree or prior experience in tax administration. He graduated from Florida High School in Tallahassee in 1989 and has worked as a computer operations manager at Super-Lube before joining DFS as an asset recovery specialist/property manager in 2006. He is making $78,000.
▪ Patricia Kight, 49, was appointed Friday as the new Compliance Assistance Process Manager in PTO, and although state law requires the person be a lawyer, she has no law degree. Kight, who Biegalski brought from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to be in charge of "strategic planning," is known throughout the agency for her close relationship with Biegalski. "I speak Leon,'' is her common refrain when speaking to employee groups. Before her promotion to the new role, she was making $59,000. Bickley said she is qualified because she "has been instrumental in advancing key priorities in property tax oversight" and in her 30-year career in government has "served in integral roles related to rulemaking, strategic planning and project management." The amount of her new salary was not available.
According to documents provided as a result of a Herald/Times public records request, DOR neither advertised nor accepted applications for the positions of director and deputy director of the Office of Property Tax Oversight but instead hand-selected Gunder and Adams.
"Filling vacancies within a state agency without advertising the position is not an anomaly,'' Bickley said in a statement. "Management and hiring supervisors have the flexibility to identify qualified candidates who can best serve within their team at all levels of the department."
In 2017, as vacancies opened up through routine retirements and departures, the staff at the Office of Property Tax Oversight was told to keep many positions vacant, several sources close to the agency told the Herald/Times. They were given resumes from the governor's office and told to hire them.
Biegalski, deputy executive director Andrea Moreland and chief of staff Tajiana Ancora-Brown were the ones who gave the marching orders, the sources said.
The agency acknowledged that neither Gunder nor Adams nor Cecil were trained by their predecessors for the jobs, and none of the people Biegalski promoted filled out applications. They provided only resumes.
Last year, the Herald/Times reported that Taylor Teepell, a GOP political operative, was appointed by Scott to head a Department of Environmental Protection division despite having no experience. He was paid $110,000 and left large parts of his application blank.
Not everyone is as confident as Biegalski that replacing experienced professionals with newcomers with no property tax experience is a good thing for the state.
On the same day Biegalski was terminating Gogarty and Brooks, he called Martha Cleaver, head of the Florida Association of Property Appraisers.
Cleaver was surprised at the news. Gogarty was widely liked by property appraisers across the state, who had complained to the governor and Cabinet officials in the past about operations at the department, and he had shown a deep understanding of property tax administration and the hurdles county officials often face as they try to help the public understand their role, she said.
"I think it's important to know a little about the job to be our oversight,'' she said. "Perhaps all you need to be is an administrator, but if I hired somebody for that job, I'd certainly hope they had some experience in a very complex area."
In addition to replacing DOR staff with those from the governor's office, Biegalski gave some of his new hires more money than those in comparable jobs in his agency. For example, the Office of Property Tax Oversight has 160 employees, fewer than DOR's Office of General Tax Administration. But while Gunder is making $117,000, the head of general tax administration, Maria Johnson, makes $115,800 and she has been with the agency since 1993.
Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said "the governor's office had absolutely nothing to do with the hiring, or firing, of these individuals." He noted that because it is a Cabinet agency it's staff makes its own personnel decisions.
"It’s no surprise that a state agency would seek to hire highly qualified individuals with experience in state policy and state budget development and experience working with the Florida Legislature,'' he said.
Biegalski, who was elevated to the post on the strength of Scott's recommendation, had earned his loyalty stripes with the governor as deputy director of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and previously as its head of the Division of Parimutuel Wagering. Scott recommended he be chosen to head DOR over three more-experienced candidates despite Biegalski's lack of experience in tax or accounting administration.
Several property appraisers who spoke to the Herald/Times said they were disappointed to see Gogarty leave. He was hired before Biegalski began and after several Cabinet officials had received complaints about the lack of communication and coherence from county property appraisers.
"We were looking specifically for someone who had a background in property tax, either in government or the private sector,'' said Marshall Stranburg, Biegalski's predecessor who hired Gogarty and is now deputy director of the Multistate Tax Commission in Washington, D.C.
"Given what the department had experienced, we decided it would be better with someone who could interact with property taxpayers and property appraisers — someone who knew the language,'' he said.
He said the agency "tried to keep politics out of it, and most of the Cabinet wanted it that way."
DOR receives the tax rolls for every county and has the authority to decide whether or not items in the budgets should be approved, or sent back for feedback. Current and former staff members at the agency reported that during Gogarty's tenure, he professionalized the department, increasing its morale.
Laurel Kelly, Martin County property appraiser since 1992, said the public is often surprised to learn that DOR has a role in overseeing the property tax rolls but its job "is to just make sure we are doing the job." She said Gogarty was good with outreach and deeply understood their issues.
"I really liked him a lot,'' Kelly said. "I thought he was very qualified and to have somebody like that was very helpful."
Gogarty spent his first several months visiting county property appraisers to introduce himself but, after Biegalski arrived in April 2016, Gogarty was told to stop after visiting about two-thirds of the county offices, sources said.
"That agency was like a family,'' a retired employee who asked not to be named told the Herald/Times. "People worked together. I hate to see what he [Biegalski] is doing to it."