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Politics

Cabinet to Consider Revamp of Agency Head Hirings

January 21, 2015 - 6:00pm

A proposal was rolled out Wednesday to change how Cabinet members hire and oversee various agency heads, as Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater downplayed an apparent rift with Gov. Rick Scott about the removal of the state's former top law-enforcement official.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam proposed a number of ideas for the management of agency heads who are under the Cabinet, while outside groups started to call for investigations into Scott's role in the departure of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

Putnam's proposal came a day after Scott and Atwater exchanged sharp letters that included Scott's desire to consider the removal of three additional agency heads.

"Over the past month," Putnam said in a prepared statement, "it has become apparent that the Florida Cabinet should institute a more formal process for agency appointments and that there is also a need for increased accountability of those agencies that report to the Cabinet."

The proposed changes, to be considered at a Feb. 5 Cabinet meeting, include clarifying the requirements for agency heads, requiring candidate interviews, establishing an appointment-selection committee and setting a process to review each agency through quarterly performance standards.

Scott said Wednesday night that Putnam's proposals could "bring some helpful structure to our work."

"We look forward to working with the Cabinet to continue discussing ways to improve the appointment structure and add needed accountability measurements to some of these positions," Scott said in a prepared statement.

Before Putnam offered his suggestions, Atwater again expressed a desire for Cabinet members to reconsider how they recently approved Scott's recommendation of Rick Swearingen, the former head of the Capitol Police, as the new FDLE leader.

And as questions have grown about how Scott and his office handled Bailey's departure -- questions that Attorney General Pam Bondi on Wednesday deemed "serious" -- Atwater maintained his support for Cabinet members to review their agency hiring process.

But Atwater called the short written response he received Tuesday from Scott -- regarding Swearingen and the Cabinet's hiring process -- "very constructive."

The governor, in his response to Atwater, reiterated support for the changes at FDLE and then proposed the possible removal of three additional agency heads: Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Drew Breakspear and Department of Revenue executive director Marshall Stranburg. Scott on Wednesday night repeated his call to begin the search process for new leaders at the three agencies.

Bondi, while not addressing Atwater's proposal to reconsider Swearingen's appointment, said in a release Wednesday that the Cabinet will discuss the FDLE changes at its next meeting "thoroughly, and in the sunshine."

"As attorney general, and as a former prosecutor, I take the rule of law very seriously, especially in matters affecting the safety and security of the people of Florida," Bondi said. "I believe the governor and every member of this Cabinet share that view. But the recent process behind the appointment of a new FDLE commissioner has raised serious questions, and those questions should be answered to ensure transparency, and the public'?s right to know."

Scott told reporters after the Jan. 13 Cabinet meeting that Bailey had "resigned." Bailey, however, disputed that, telling the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau that "I did not voluntarily do anything." A spokeswoman for Scott later that day issued a statement that the governor "thinks it'?s important to frequently get new people into government positions of leadership."

Atwater on Wednesday said the Cabinet should first review its policies before considering agency-head changes.

"I'm not interested in reviewing names until I think there will be a process that the public and each member will think fair," Atwater told reporters.

Atwater also questioned a call by watchdog group Integrity Florida to have the FBI conduct an investigation into a Herald/Times report in which Bailey alleged Scott and members of his staff sought to have the state police in 2013 indicate that acting Orange County clerk of court Colleen Reilly was the target of an investigation.

Bailey told the Herald/Times he refused the request.

Atwater said while "the allegations that I've read are serious," he believes it is a matter that should be handled by the FDLE.

"The commissioner, right now I think, should be visiting with their team and assessing what individuals, both present and maybe past members, would tell the commissioner as to what took place. And then he could tell the Cabinet," Atwater said. "Anybody would agree those are pretty serious allegations. What is fact or fiction, I don't know."

The FDLE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Asked Tuesday by the Orlando Sentinel while at the Seminole County Regional Chamber of Commerce if his office made any overtures regarding Reilly, Scott responded, "Absolutely not."

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