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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

A tale of two websites: While Sebelius is out of work, Panuccio keeps his job

11

April

Two agency directors. Two launches of websites that failed miserably.

On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius resigned after her five years on the job were marred by the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov, the website set up to enroll Americans in Pres. Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Twenty-four hours later, the Florida Senate confirmed Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity’s executive director, Jesse Panuccio, even though he presided over a strikingly similar troubled rollout of another pricey governmental website, CONNECT.

What gives?

Well, for one thing, it’s rare that Florida senators flat out reject an appointment. It hasn’t happened since 2010 when the Senate rejected two of Gov. Charlie Crist’s appointments to the Public Service Commission, David Klement and Ben Stevens. A likelier scenario is senators never take it up, and the confirmation just dies.

On Friday, the chairman of the Senate’s ethics and elections committee, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, submitted a list of 42 appointees he recommended for confirmation. There was no debate. No discussion. Senators voted 37-0 on the confirmations, which included Panuccio and his $141,000 job.

But the biggest difference, by far, was the way the two parties handled the websites.

While the Republicans were merciless in their criticisms of HealthCare.Gov and Sebelius, Florida Democrats, with a much weaker political hand in Tallahassee, barely made CONNECT an issue.

It’s not like they didn’t have any ammunition. When the $63 million CONNECT project first launched in mid-October, thousands of unemployed claimants were locked out of the system because of computer glitches. Records show Panuccio and other top DEO officials were celebrating, despite getting reports of a widespread failure. Panuccio then blamed the problem on the media, then the vendor, and took more than two months to hire those necessary to get process long-delayed claims.

But not only did Democrats not raise a fuss, they were effusive in their praise of Panuccio, even saying he took responsiblity for what happened, which is the one thing he has never done.

Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, praised Panuccio at the March 25 Community Affairs Committee confirmation hearing.

“You have been very good in his position, and I will support you,” Smith said.

Panuccio cleared four committees, giving Democrats plenty of time to draw attention to mistakes he’s made. Only one, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, bothered to do so.

“He never said that he’s ultimately responsible, that the buck stops with him,” Joyner said last week, explaining why she voted against him.

Asked why she was the only Democrat to vote against him, Joyner said she didn’t know.

“I can only speak for myself,” Joyner said.

Only U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has criticized the DEO’s handling of CONNECT on a routine basis. But he’s done it through a series of news releases that don’t mention Panuccio by name and directed most of the attention to perceived systemic failures on DEO’s part. And he's actually helped get federal officials involved in making sure claims don't go too long without getting paid.

When compared to how national Republicans made Sebelius the poster child for what ailed HealthCare.gov, the silence from other state Democrats on CONNECT, and their inability to link it to Gov. Rick Scott, is jarring.

And it's at least part of the reason why Panuccio’s confirmation was uneventful.

[Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2014 10:26am]

    

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