State Politics

This key agency answers to the governor and Cabinet, but they don't ask many questions

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, left, Gov. Rick Scott, CFO Jimmy Patronis, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam talk before a state Clemency Board meeting in March.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, left, Gov. Rick Scott, CFO Jimmy Patronis, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam talk before a state Clemency Board meeting in March. Tampa Bay Times

The state agency in charge of regulating taxation in Florida has four equal bosses — Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected members of the Cabinet — but in the past two years, in public meetings and correspondence, they have asked few questions and have given the agency scant public scrutiny.

The agency's director, Leon Biegalski, was the governor's choice to lead the Department of Revenue when he was elevated from deputy secretary at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation in April 2016. Since then, the governor has left off DOR's regular appearance in 8 of 19 of the Cabinet meetings.

When Biegalski appears before the Cabinet on Wednesday, it will be the second time this year. Will they ask any questions?

Judging from the transcripts of the previous meetings, that's not likely. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam asked only two questions in Biegalski's 10 appearances before them — and both came from Putnam.

A public records request seeking all correspondence between Biegalski's office and the Cabinet aides who assist the governor and Cabinet officials, turned up only six emails over the last two years — including a request from Patronis' Cabinet aide Robert Tornillo asking if DOR needed "a new 8x10 photo of Chief Patronis for your lobby."

Florida, unlike most other states, has a unique power-sharing relationship between its governor and the Cabinet members. They share oversight and hiring authority of the directors of the departments of revenue, law enforcement, highway safety, the division of bond finance and the state board of administration.

Transparency of Cabinet relations and the agencies they watch was supposed to improve after 2015, when Scott's office was caught manipulating the ouster of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, and the Cabinet was forced to pay $55,000 and agree to more transparency in a legal settlement for violating the Florida Sunshine Law.

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Putnam proposed an overhaul of the way the governor and Cabinet approve agency heads, including a formal process for the regular review of agency business. The governor and other Cabinet members unanimously agreed.

But if there has been any increase in oversight, it has not resulted in rigorous review of agency activities at Cabinet meetings.

In the last month, since the Herald/Times reported that Biegalski ousted top employees and kept positions vacant for months to make room for Scott's staff, one of the appointments, Thomas Adams, took a $5,000 pay cut and left to work for Patronis.

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Adams, 31, a lawyer who previously worked as a general government policy chief in the governor's budget office, replaced Timisha Brooks as the deputy director of the Office of Property Tax Oversight at DOR. Brooks was given four hours notice and no explanation for her ouster on a Friday. Adams and, Brandi Gunter, who replaced PTO director Maurice Gogarty, were in their offices the next Monday.

According to an undated resignation letter created May 24, Adams resigned on May 18 but said he had given "verbal notice" on April 23 — two weeks after replacing Brooks — that he would be leaving. At DOR, he was making $90,000. At the Department of Financial Services, he is making $85,000.

In a letter to employees after the May 8 story, Biegalski said that "all leadership employment decisions are made by our leadership team and me. We strive to put in place talented individuals who are qualified and passionate about public service and working collaboratively."

DOR staff repeatedly tried to have an "off the record" conversation with the Herald/Times to explain their rational for firing people and holding the positions vacant but the agency refused to put that explanation on the record for the public to know.

The only analyst in the Property Tax Oversight department with with more than a year of experience overseeing the budgets of county tax collectors and property appraisers resigned citing health reasons last month.

The deadline for reviewing those budgets is June. If the agency signs off on budgets that county commissioners consider flawed, state law allows the commissioners to file a budget appeal to the governor and Cabinet for a budget review and modification.

After the Herald/Times story, the agency produced a revised job description to remove the requirement that a lawyer be in charge of the division that oversees administrative tax rules. Biegalski had appointed his long-time associate, Patricia Kight, to the job. The role "no longer supervises attorneys. The position has been restructured to better meet the needs of the program,'' the agency said.

Kight "is a long-standing public servant with more than 30 years in state government," the agency said and included her resume which cites neither a law nor undergraduate degree.

Public records requests show that Biegalski has issued a new "media policy" that imposes a gag order on all employees, making it a punishable offense to speak on background or off-the-record to anyone in the media.

He has removed visitor parking spaces at the agency's headquarters to provide closer access to the building for his senior staff than the employee parking lot.

According to purchase receipts obtained by the Herald/Times, Biegalski in 2017 enlarged his personal office by taking over the conference room. He installed a big-screen TV that cost $1,408 to wire with cable, purchased a $1,451 desk and credenza from Amazon and a $578 chair from an executive office supply company. The records also show $12,818 spent on several standing desks and chairs in DOR executive offices.

In response to the Herald/Times public records request made last year, Biegalski and his executive staff ordered employees to respond by hand-delivering documents in an effort to avoid the creation of additional records trails, said current and former staff members who asked not to be identified because they feared retribution. He and his staff also instructed staff not to put the subject matter of meetings on calendars.

At Wednesday's meeting, Biegalski is expected to present his third-quarter performance report and ask for the approval of three rules.

At a meeting of the Cabinet aides last week, no one had any questions of the Department of Revenue staff.

When asked for a reaction to Biegalski's management decisions regarding the ouster of veteran employees to make room for Scott's former staffers, the governor commended the hiring of his former staff.

“The Department of Revenue makes personnel decisions for their agency,'' said Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis. "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.”

Bondi deflected. "The executive director, not the attorney general, is in charge of the Florida Department of Revenue’s day-to-day operations,'' said Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said through a spokesperson that "to date, DFS has had positive experiences with DOR. The CFO’s sole focus is to ensure DOR serves taxpayers to the maximum of their ability.”

And Putnam said through a spokesperson:

“As a Cabinet agency, I pay attention to what happens at the Department of Revenue and ultimately I hold the executive director responsible for the agency’s performance.”

Tampa Bay Times bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas
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