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Florida Cabinet Member Takes Issue With Hiring Process For State Financial Regulator

Nikki Fried poses for a picture at her desk flanked by state and national flags
FL Dept of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Florida’s Office of Financial Regulation (OFR) has been without a commissioner since last spring.  This week, the Florida Cabinet voted to change that with the appointment of Russell Weigel, a securities lawyer from Coral Gables.  One Cabinet member withheld her vote, however, questioning whether the decision was made according to Florida’s open government Sunshine Law.

Monday’s Cabinet meeting took place on the phone and lasted about a minute. Gov. Ron DeSantis presented the only agenda item: the appointment of an OFR commissioner. The vote was three in favor and one abstaining - Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. She offered no further comment, and the Cabinet agreed to keep the salary for the job at $166,000 a year.

Fried’s office later issued a statement saying she did not participate in the vote due to concerns over the candidate selection process and her lack of confidence in the finalists. Fried says she wished the process had been more transparent and lamented that the office had been without even an interim leader for more than 200 days.

The Cabinet conducted public interviews with three OFR candidates in October. Weigel has more than 25 years of legal experience, owns a securities transactional and litigation firm, and spent 11 years as a federal Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement attorney.

A day after the vote, DeSantis said he liked Weigel’s experience. “Obviously given what had happened with the original appointee, we just wanted to make sure that was going to be a smooth leadership,” DeSantis said. “I actually think it’s run a lot better since we got rid of the other guy just in the interim to be honest.”

DeSantis is referring to previous commissioner Ronald Rubin. He was fired by the Cabinet last July with Fried abstaining, again citing transparency concerns. Rubin was hired in February and suspended within 2 months following accusations of sexual harassment.

I don't think she probably realized she had to vote. So anyway, I think it was just a mistake on her part not fully thinking through what was her obligation. ~CFO Jimmy Patronis

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis oversees OFR. He says Weigel was well-vetted amid an “incredibly public process” and regrets that Fried didn’t make the vote unanimous.

CFO Jimmy Patronis smiles for a picture.
Credit myfloridacfo.com / Florida Department of Financial Services
Florida Department of Financial Services
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis oversees the Florida Office of Financial Regulation.

“I think what the commissioner (Fried) did was just unfortunately a rookie move,” Patronis said the next day. “There’s an opportunity to serve the state of Florida. She had the opportunity to cast a vote. She decided to abstain. I don’t think she probably realized she had to vote. So anyway, I think it was just a mistake on her part not fully thinking through what was her obligation.”

Florida law says state leaders cannot abstain from a vote unless they have a conflict of interest. Fried’s office says Florida law also states that only three yes votes were needed for this hire.

Fried is the only Democrat on the Cabinet, which includes DeSantis, Patronis, and Attorney General Ashley Moody. Fried told The Florida Channel she felt she had to abstain on Weigel’s appointment because there was no discussion among Cabinet members prior to the vote.

There was no vetting of those candidates publicly to say this is why this person is better than the other. ~Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried

“Every other member of the Cabinet, when they got onto that call, knew exactly who they were voting for and how the vote was going to happen. That is very disheartening to know that the conversation was happening outside of the sunshine,” Fried said. “There was no vetting of those candidates publicly to say this is why this person is better than the other and this is why we’re going this direction. So, not amateur. In fact, not rookie. Just the opposite, that I’m very disappointed that these conversations are not being had in the public.”

Fried does say she’s glad the Office of Financial Regulation will finally have leadership, and she looks forward to working with Weigel and his staff.

~News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.