New FDLE Commissioner Swearingen Reassures Lawmakers He's Man For The Job

Mar 27, 2015

New FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Monday.
Credit Florida Channel

The head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement received unanimous support at his initial confirmation hearing in the Senate this week. But, he spent much of the time reassuring a panel of lawmakers about his agency’s working relationship with Florida’s troubled prison system.

In the past few months, newly appointed FDLE head Rick Swearingen has been in the spotlight, after Governor Rick Scott ousted his longtime predecessor Gerald Bailey and tapped him to replace Bailey.

It’s since led to a lawsuit alleging Scott and the rest of the Florida Cabinet violated the state’s Sunshine Law by forcing Bailey to leave without a public discussion. And, the Cabinet has been grappling with its hiring and firing procedures as it relates to agency heads.

Given what’s occurred, some lawmakers question whether Swearingen can stay objective. That includes Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens.

“Everything that I’ve heard from folks that I’ve talked to say that you’re a consummate professional,” said Clemens. “I just—in light of some of the things that have happened over the past six months—whether they’ve been blown out of proportion or not, I just want to make sure that we’re asking you the question in terms of your department and the Executive branch. Can you just speak to that briefly for us?”

“I am fully aware that we are Cabinet agency and I have four bosses,”Swearingen replied. “In my short tenure—four months now—I have met with each of the Cabinet members. I am in the process of setting up standing meetings with each one of those members, so that I’m meeting with them regularly to either brief them on issues important to the state or to hear issues that they are concerned that we might be able to help them with. So, I’m on the process of setting up those meetings.”

And, he adds he recognizes that his agency must also remain independent in other ways.

“Our budget request, if you noted our amended LBRs, had some things in there that were not on the Governor’s recommendations. We left those things, and in all fairness, I’ve not been asked to remove anything from any of our LBRs by the Governor’s office. So, I understand the importance of being an independent agency. There are times that where we’re going to be asked to conduct investigations. So, I can give this committee my assurances that that will happen.”

Both the House and Senate’s prison reform packages mandate the Florida Department of Corrections and FDLE have a written formal agreement in place called the Memorandum of Understanding, or the MOU. FDLE is supposed to investigate unnatural inmate deaths, after being notified by DOC.

And lawmakers, including Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island), asked the new chief some questions related to its relationship with DOC.

“Could you update us on how things are going with the relationship between FDLE and the Department of Corrections with regards to the agreement that exists between the two agencies with regard to investigations of [inmate] deaths,” asked Bradley.

“Secretary Jones and I speak regularly, which is probably a good thing,” Swearingen replied. “We’re getting more calls from DOC, even on things we wouldn’t via the MOU respond to, but we’re getting more and more calls from them—which I think is a good thing. There’s no harm in them calling us to run something by us. I think it’s going pretty smoothly. We are asking for 17 additional positions to help with those investigations, which thanks to the House, Senate, and the Governor’s office, we’re looking pretty good there.”

And, when Bradley further questioned the new chief about the protocol for how DOC’s Inspector General, or IG, reports a death or serious bodily injury that could result in death to FDLE, Swearingen reported some problems.

“There’s a death at the facility. The IG has to be notified within 30 minutes, and then the IG calls FDLE,” asked Bradley.

“That’s my understanding, Senator,” said Swearingen.

“Okay, and since you’ve been on the job, have there been any breach of that protocol,” asked Bradley.

“I believe there have been some time delays. Um, but I can’t say there has been a breach. But, there have been some time delays,” answered Swearingen.

“Between which part? The facility and the IG or the facility and FDLE,” asked Bradley.

“Both, I believe,” Swearingen replied.

But, Swearingen assured the committee that despite the time delays in the reporting and the investigations, there are procedures in place for both agencies to punish those responsible.

Overall, he says given his extensive background working at most areas of the agency, he’s looking forward to what’s ahead for him and his FDLE employees.

“I’m a big believer in [Abraham] Lincoln’s leadership principles, and one of his principles was wanting to surround yourself with good people and then to empower those people to do their job. So, I have no doubt I have a wide level of experience at the agency. I have no doubt about my capabilities. Morale at the agency is outstanding right now,” said Swearingen.

And, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted to confirm him. Meanwhile, unlike the close to 20 minutes it took to confirm Swearingen, the Senate panel also confirmed Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly in three minutes.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.