It’s not unusual to see a little shuffling in the governor’s office and state agencies after an election. There are new directions to go in, and favors to repay. But some of the changes lately have looked less like a shuffle and more like a new deck of cards. Now lawmakers and cabinet members are questioning how the deck is being stacked.
After news came out that Florida Department of Law Enforcement head Gerald Bailey had not stepped down voluntarily, as cabinet members seemed to believe, but had been forced to leave by members of Governor Rick Scott’s staff, red flags went up with legislative leaders like Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner asking questions.
“What is going on? Why can’t we get the truth out of the firing of Commissioner Bailey, a gentleman with an esteemed record of service in this state and law enforcement,” Joyner asked.
She calls the event a “sad spectacle” and “miserable lesson in bad government.” Governor Rick Scott calls the accusations unfair.
“I did the same thing when I was in business. You say is there new energy are there new ideas? I think it’s important to do that especially as you’re going into your second term. So I’ve been looking at all of our agencies. You can see the changes we’ve already made. Gerald Bailey was given the opportunity to step down. He did. He was given that opportunity, then he waited until after Rick Swearingen was confirmed by the entire cabinet then made his attacks. The attacks against me are absolutely untrue and they’re ridiculous,” Scott says.
But Joyner is not the only one who is concerned. Several others have called for investigations—including, a request for a criminal investigation looking into whether any of the state’s open record, or sunshine rules, were broken. Barbara Petersen is the President of the First Amendment Foundation.
“Any discussion of cabinet business between two or more members of the cabinet is a meeting subject to the sunshine. It must be open and noticed to the public. From the news reports I’ve read, it’s still not clear exactly how this went down. If staff, cabinet aides have been delegated the authority to make recommendations to the cabinet, sunshine follows that delegation, which means cabinet aides can be subject to the sunshine,” Petersen says.
Petersen says if media reports claiming Bailey’s removal was discussed by cabinet members through staff are true, that could be a violation of the public record laws. But State Attorney Willie Meggs has announced he won’t investigate. According to the Associated Press, Meggs says that’s because the complaints made against the cabinet have been based on media reports, and not personal knowledge. But that’s not likely to be the end of the story. New complaints are in the pipeline including one filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics. And Cabinet members are scheduled to meet in Tampa Thursday and have said they expect the issue to come up. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater thinks officials should work out a system for reviewing agency heads.
“So there’s going to be obviously at this next cabinet meeting a discussion, it looks to be, as to processes by which someone might be evaluated and ultimately an incumbent in place or an opening replaced. And I whole heartedly support that and I have asked in a letter to the governor that we step back and establish such a process,” Atwater says
And that process might get in to place just in time for Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty. Scott has reportedly already spoken to a potential replacement for the commissioner, but members of the cabinet, like Atwater say they like McCarty and plan to monitor any potential shuffling more closely this time.