Florida

FDLE chief working overtime to shed ‘interim’ tag

It might be the longest job interview in Florida history, at six months and counting.

That’s how long ago Rick Swearingen got the shocking phone call that changed his life and set off a slow-motion political disaster for Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet.

It’s all because Scott and the three elected Cabinet members botched the removal of Swearingen’s predecessor as commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Gerald Bailey’s hush-hush firing by Scott last Dec. 16 exposed a lack of oversight by asleep-at-the-switch Cabinet members and damaged morale at an agency that reports to the Cabinet so as to be protected from political meddling by one person, even the governor.

After the Bailey bungling, Scott and the Cabinet adopted new rules requiring public job reviews of candidates hired to run Cabinet-level agencies, beginning with self-reviews.

Swearingen, the guinea pig under the new system, did a self-assessment at a Cabinet meeting last week and took full advantage of the opportunity to make a sales pitch for himself and FDLE’s 1,700 employees.

In his crisp, button-down style, he said starting pay for FDLE agents is too low, past budget cuts have increased turnover, especially in labs that do DNA research, and buildings are cramped and “crumbling” because of neglect.

He said FDLE is hobbled by an “isolationist” image among police agencies because it has withdrawn from law enforcement task forces.

He said the definition of moral character to be a cop must be higher, an apparent reference to a police corruption case in Fort Lauderdale. He said police have to work constantly to win the public trust and avoid “another Ferguson.”

He talked about FDLE’s investigative efforts in cyber-crime, child pornography, terrorism and suspicious deaths in state prisons. He stressed the need for “renewal” at the agency and said morale is improving under his direction.

“I believe I have the support of the vast majority of FDLE membership,” he said.

Swearingen got rave reviews, and appears more than ready for the challenge of running the state’s premier law enforcement agency.

It was a milestone bureaucratic moment, because nearly a dozen other high-level officials will have to follow the same exercise.

They include highway safety chief Terry Rhodes, chief banking regulator Drew Breakspear and Kevin McCarty, the longtime insurance commissioner who Scott unilaterally wanted to replace but who retains the support of another of his bosses, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

Dozens of others applied for the $150,000 FDLE job, but Scott and Cabinet members didn’t want to interview any of them.

Swearingen won’t have to twist in the wind much longer, but he can’t shake the tag of “interim” quite yet.

The Cabinet traditionally takes off the month of July, so its next scheduled meeting will be on Aug. 5. That’s, when Swearingen should get the seal of approval — and the job security that goes with it.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or 850-224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet

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