Florida Politics

Florida’s top cop has earned governor’s favor

Gov. Rick Scott
Gov. Rick Scott

In his first two years in office, Gov. Rick Scott became so friendly with bodyguard Rick Swearingen, that when Swearingen’s duty ended as special agent in charge of protecting the governor, Scott kept him on for plum assignments — trips to Paris, Japan and the college football championship.

According to travel records released by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Swearingen held the unusual position of being both director of Capitol Police, in charge of security at the Capitol complex from May 2013 to December 2014, while also serving as the governor’s occasional bodyguard for long-distance travel.

Scott gave Swearingen a promotion in December. He forced FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey to retire or be fired, and unilaterally named Swearingen as Bailey’s successor as the state’s top law enforcement officer. The incident unleashed a firestorm of controversy when Bailey caught Scott falsely claiming that Bailey had “resigned” and Cabinet officials said they had been misled by Scott’s staff.

Swearingen, 55, a veteran FDLE agent, joined Scott’s protective operations team in September 2010. The duty of the security team is to protect Scott and his wife, Ann, wherever they go — a job that demands hours of intimate contact with the chief executive and his family. Scott, however, has gone to such lengths to shield the public from knowing where he travels and with whom that he has persuaded federal regulators to exempt his plane’s flight data from federal aviation logs.

After more than two years, Bailey named Swearingen director of Capitol Police but, less than a month after starting that job, Swearingen joined Scott on a week-long trip to France to attend the International Paris Air Show.

In November 2013, Swearingen traveled with Scott again, this time on a week-long trade mission to Tokyo. When they returned, the governor brought Swearingen with him again on a three-day trip to Biloxi, Mississippi, to attend the annual meeting of the Southeast U.S./Japan Association.

The long-distance assignments continued for Swearingen into the next year. When Swearingen’s college team, the Auburn Tigers, faced off against the Florida State Seminoles at the 2014 college football championship in Santa Clara, California, Swearingen went along for the three-day trip as Scott’s security detail.

And in November, when the governor was celebrating victory at an Election Night party in a swanky resort in Bonita Springs, Swearingen was there again.

The cost to taxpayers for Swearingen’s travel with the governor while he was head of Capitol Police: $9,943 for 19 days. His annual salary was $107,533. His salary after the FDLE promotion: $150,000.

FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said if Swearingen had not gone on the trips, taxpayers would have had to foot the bill for another agent to go instead.

“It is not uncommon for the head of Capitol Police to continue, even in a limited capacity, doing protective operations for the governor,” she said. She also said that one of the tickets for the Swearingen’s overseas travel had been purchased before Bailey appointed him to become head of Capitol Police.

Plessinger acknowledged, however, that Swearingen has since consolidated control of the governor’s protective operations under him because his replacement has no experience in that area and he believes it is a better fit. Last week, he reorganized the department and the governor’s security detail no longer reports to the Capitol Police; it reports directly to Swearingen.

Scott spokesman John Tupps said only that “FDLE makes decisions about the governor’s security.’’

Meanwhile, Swearingen’s close affiliation with the governor has drawn criticism. The governor does not have sole control over FDLE but shares oversight with other independently elected members of the Cabinet — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

At a meeting of the governor and Cabinet last week, Atwater urged his colleagues to “revisit” the decision to name Swearingen as the new FDLE head because of “perceptions of how he was selected” and possible favoritism. Bondi and Putnam responded they have confidence in Swearingen and Atwater agreed.

Scott rejected a call by former FDLE Commissioner Bailey for $8.4 million and 66 more investigators to review more than 100 inmate deaths at Florida’s prisons and officer-involved shootings. Swearingen, however, has not said whether he would support Bailey's request or side with the governor and not seek the funding.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas.