Too smelly to ignore

ADMISSION: Gov. Rick Scott, at a public Cabinet meeting at the Florida State Fair in Tampa last week, said that he mishandled the dismissal of the state’s top cop.
ADMISSION: Gov. Rick Scott, at a public Cabinet meeting at the Florida State Fair in Tampa last week, said that he mishandled the dismissal of the state’s top cop. AP

The Florida Cabinet blew it last week by failing to confront Gov. Rick Scott over his unilateral dismissal of the state’s top cop. Instead of using a public meeting to shed light on the firing, the three elected state officials effectively rubber-stamped the governor’s outrageous power-grab.

The Florida Constitution (Article IV, Section 4) is unmistakably clear on the issue of who runs the state’s police department: “The governor as chair, the chief financial officer, the attorney general, and the commissioner of agriculture shall constitute the agency head of the Department of Law Enforcement.”

Notwithstanding these plain words in the state’s basic document, Gov. Scott on Dec. 16 sent one of his minions to inform FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, a respected, longtime law-enforcement officer, that he must either resign or be fired, no reason given.

After Mr. Bailey chose to resign, the governor disingenuously informed the other members of the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — that Mr. Bailey had simply turned in his badge. That cleared the way for Mr. Scott to install Rick Swearingen as Mr. Bailey’s replacement without anyone else being considered.

In the ensuing weeks, the scandal has exploded as it became clear that Mr. Bailey’s departure was a forced ouster. He subsequently made serious allegations about improper requests from the governor’s office during his tenure, including some of a possibly criminal nature.

On Thursday, during a public Cabinet meeting in Tampa, Gov. Scott issued a mea culpa of sorts over the Bailey dismissal: “In hindsight, I could have handled it better.” But the Cabinet members passed up the opportunity to question Mr. Scott about the scandal or to delve into whether the FDLE’s independence has been dangerously compromised.

Cabinet members also failed to ask the governor, point blank, why he had misled them. Instead, they focused on procedures for hiring and firing agency heads from now on, clearly hoping the scandal would blow over.

The Cabinet’s dereliction and Mr. Scott’s weak admission of error shouldn’t be the end of it. Clearly, how Mr. Bailey was removed was wrong. Why else would the Cabinet change the way such things are done in the future? More important, what is to stop abuses if the Cabinet won’t examine how they got into this mess in the first place?

There are strong indications that the state’s open-meetings law was violated. But neither Ms. Bondi, the attorney general, nor Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs in Tallahassee are willing to look into it. What’s the point of having the country’s best Government in the Sunshine laws if they’re not enforced?

On Thursday, Mr. Scott said the buck stops with him. If he means that, he should appoint an independent investigator — bringing the heft of subpoena power and a grand jury — because that is the only way to get to the bottom of it. Failing that, the Legislature should examine the matter, and let the chips fall where they may.

Understandably, the Republican-controlled body is reluctant to investigate a Republican governor, but surely lawmakers realize that public integrity, open government and law enforcement free of political control are not partisan issues. The scandal is too smelly to ignore, and the sooner officials in Tallahassee realize that, the better off Florida will be.