The Florida Cabinet will start a process at its next meeting to consider Gov. Rick Scott’s move to possibly replace three agency heads, including the state’s long-serving insurance commissioner.
But the Cabinet will not press for an investigation into the abrupt December departure of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, though Scott acknowledged Thursday “it is clear, in hindsight, that I could have handled it better.”
Scott and the Cabinet met Thursday in Tampa for the first time since a major controversy erupted last month about Bailey’s ouster. Cabinet members have been critical of Scott, who initially said Bailey resigned. The former commissioner adamantly refuted that explanation and made a series of potentially damaging allegations about the Scott administration to the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau.
The governor’s office has fought back against Bailey’s claims. Addressing the media after Thursday’s meeting, Scott didn’t elaborate about how he could have better handled the Bailey matter.
But the controversy also has led to Scott raising the possibility of replacing three agency heads who fall under the Cabinet: Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, Revenue Department chief Marshall Stranburg and Financial Regulation Commissioner Drew Breakspear.
Among the allegations raised by Bailey was that Scott’s office sought to have him falsely suggest in 2013 that acting Orange County clerk of court Colleen Reilly was the target of an investigation — a request Bailey said he rejected. But there was no indication Thursday that more than one Cabinet member wanted to delve into that allegation.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who wanted the Orange County clerk review, called Bailey’s accusation “serious.” Putnam added that he’s talked with Bailey several times and that the FDLE or the state’s chief inspector general could still be asked to look into the claim.
“I have no reason not to believe Jerry Bailey,” Putnam said.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said it will be up to Bailey to request an investigation.
Scott, addressing reporters after the meeting, repeated his contention that Bailey’s statements “are ridiculous and untrue.”
The clerk of court issue stemmed from the escapes of two prison inmates using forged papers. In trying to refute Bailey’s allegation, the governor’s office Thursday afternoon also issued the latest in a series of “frequently asked questions” documents to the news media. Scott office stated that when a staffer met with Bailey to coordinate a press conference there were no discussions “about targeting any individual.”
“The discussions with Bailey were about how to provide the most complete account of who could have been involved in the high-profile escape of two inmates, which included both the clerk’s office and the Department of Corrections,” the statement said.
Putnam declined to speculate on who may be untruthful.
“I was asked if I believe Jerry Bailey,” he said. “My response was I have no reason not to believe Jerry Bailey. That is why I think a further review is warranted.”
Scott and the Cabinet last month unanimously approved the governor’s choice of Rick Swearingen, the former head of the Capitol Police, as Bailey’s replacement. That approval came before the controversy about Bailey’s removal. Scott and the Cabinet on Thursday rejected a request by state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to reconsider Swearingen’s approval.
However, Atwater could get a second chance to pose that question as part of a new hiring process the Cabinet discussed Thursday and will vote on in March. The process could include a requirement for all Cabinet-level agency heads to be brought up for annual reviews before the Cabinet.
The assessments could begin in June, and Scott agreed that Swearingen could be among those appearing at the first review.
Scott said he would also like to hear from McCarty, Stranburg and Breakspear at the March 10 meeting. Scott’s office confirmed last week that it had asked for a resume from Louisiana insurance official Ron Henderson as a potential replacement for McCarty.
Atwater, who has said he isn’t ready to discuss replacing McCarty or other department heads, expressed some concern about an annual “up or down” review of agency heads.
“I think we put at risk the talent we might attract if it is an annual vote up and down, and not measured against performance,” Atwater said.
But Scott said he’d prefer to maintain a private-sector approach to hiring.
The fallout from Bailey’s removal has opened Scott and the Republican Cabinet members to political attacks. Before Thursday’s meeting, Democrats called out the Cabinet for not looking into Bailey’s ouster and his allegations.
Among the critics is former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who addressed reporters at the Florida State Fair, where Thursday’s Cabinet meeting was held.
“I think it’s the responsibility of these three Cabinet members who are independently elected to stand up and say we have to be involved in the selection of agency heads,” said the Democrat, who was defeated by Scott in the 2010 gubernatorial contest.