Florida Politics

Gov. Scott wants to replace top insurance regulator

Gov. Rick Scott
Gov. Rick Scott

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott recruited a Louisiana state official as the replacement for Florida’s chief insurance regulator weeks before he publicly called for the regulator’s removal as part of a second-term reorganization.

Scott’s office confirmed Monday that it asked for a resume from Ron Henderson, 45, the deputy insurance commissioner for consumer advocacy in Louisiana. His name was pitched to Scott by a Tallahassee lobbyist for the insurance industry, Fred Karlinsky, a friend of Scott’s and co-chairman of Scott’s second inaugural.

Henderson is being considered as a replacement for Kevin McCarty, who has headed Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation since 2003 and plays a critical role in setting the property insurance rates that affect all Florida homeowners and businesses.

Karlinsky, a Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer, recently switched law firms and joined Greenberg Traurig, one of the state’s most politically active.

Scott last month appointed Karlinsky to a prestigious state board, the nine-member Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. That gives the lobbyist a seat at the table in recommending who should be the high court’s next justice.

Karlinsky has had a tense relationship with McCarty’s office for some time, and the lobbyist is on friendlier terms with Henderson. Karlinsky and Henderson were co-presenters at an insurance regulation seminar on ethics in New Orleans last July, sponsored by the Louisiana Department of Insurance. Karlinsky has twice donated $5,000 to the election campaigns of Henderson’s boss, Louisiana Insurance Commissioner James Donelon, in 2009 and 2013.

Scott’s office reached out to Henderson while the governor was at the center of a furor over his office’s sudden December ouster of Gerald Bailey, the long-time commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That move has led to calls for an outside investigation by two Cabinet members — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

McCarty, like Bailey, does not report only to Scott, but also to the three independently elected Cabinet members. All three said they were blind-sided by Bailey’s removal and all three belatedly criticized the way Scott’s office orchestrated it.

By law, the hiring of an insurance regulator requires Scott and Atwater to agree.

Scott last Tuesday called for replacing McCarty and the heads of two other Cabinet-level agencies, Drew Breakspear at the Office of Financial Regulation, and Marshall Stranburg at the Department of Revenue.

Atwater said last week he opposes removing any of the three until Scott and the Cabinet agree on a formal process for evaluating candidates for each position. Through a spokeswoman, Atwater said his office “was not consulted or given notification that any outside talent was approached as a possible replacement to lead the Office of Insurance Regulation.”

McCarty declined to comment Monday.

An online insurance industry news service, SNL Financial, first reported Scott’s interest in luring Henderson away from Louisiana.

In an article posted last Friday, SNL Financial quoted Donelon as saying that Henderson told him more than two weeks earlier he had been approached by Scott’s administration in Tallahassee. Donelon said he told Henderson he could pursue the Florida job.

He also gave McCarty a heads-up.

“(I) told Commissioner McCarty that I had been apprised of that,” Donelon told SNL Financial. “I was not lobbying for his removal or replacement, but I did give my deputy permission to go forward.”

Henderson’s name would be well-known among Scott’s inner circle for another reason. Scott’s chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, worked as a press aide to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in Baton Rouge before she came to Florida in 2012.

Jindal made several visits to Florida to campaign for Scott last fall, and two other high-ranking members of Scott’s administration, Frank and Meghan Collins, also worked for Jindal. Frank Collins is a deputy chief of staff to Scott; his wife, Meghan, is communications director for Department of Education. During Scott’s re-election campaign, FDLE agents at times referred to the group of young out-of-state Scott advisers as the “Louisiana Mafia.”

“As we made the transition to a second term in office, Ron Henderson was brought up as a possible candidate for commissioner of OIR,” Scott’s spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, said in a statement. “We reached out and asked for his resume. We did not discuss Mr. Henderson with other Cabinet staff.”

Schutz said Scott’s office has received no other resumes and the office has not interviewed Henderson. She declined to say when Scott’s office asked for Henderson’s resume.

Scott’s office did not respond to a Times/Herald public records request for the Henderson resume.

Schutz noted Scott has said he supports a discussion of a way to replace McCarty and the other two state agency heads at the next Cabinet meeting, set for Feb. 5 in Tampa.

“The governor believes government needs to be more like business and frequently change leadership to bring in new ideas and fresh energy,” Schutz said.

Consumer groups that monitor the insurance industry criticized Scott.

“Kevin McCarty has been doing right by policyholders,” said Sean Shaw, founder of the group Policyholders of Florida and a former state insurance consumer advocate. “His job should not be in jeopardy, nor should Gov. Scott be attempting to circumvent the constitutional obligations of the Florida Cabinet again. This isn’t how our government is supposed to work.”

Henderson and Donelon did not respond to requests for comment. Through a spokeswoman, Karlinsky also declined to comment.

Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen and Mary Ellen Klas and Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.​

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