Despite CONNECT mess, DEO chief Panuccio clears confirmation round
By any account, it’s been a rough stretch for Jesse Panuccio, the embattled executive director of Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity.
Since mid-October, Panuccio has had to explain to state lawmakers what went wrong with the launch of CONNECT, a $63-million unemployment benefits website plagued with glitches that has prevented thousands from collecting their weekly jobless payments in a timely manner.
But such issues didn’t interfere with Wednesday’s unanimous confirmation of Panuccio by a senate appropriations committee that not only overlooked the disastrous rollout of the project, but rewrote some of the history surrounding it, as well.
By an 11-0 vote, the Senate’s appropriations subcommittee on transportation, tourism, and economic development confirmed the 33-year-old Panuccio to the $141,000 job that oversees an agency with 1,621 employees and an $872.7 million budget. He started the job 15 months ago after a stint as Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel. He has two more committees and a floor vote in the Senate before he’s fully confirmed.
If Wednesday is any indication, however, Panuccio appears to have weathered a crisis with a landmark project overseen by his agency that has led to the January intervention from the U.S. Department of Labor and left thousands of unemployed without weekly payments of up to $275 because of problems with CONNECT.
“I’m not just going to support you, I’m going to do everything I can in the process to make sure you get to the end,” said the committee chair, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. “I think what helps me is when this issue happened with the website, unlike some other areas in the state and Washington that just pointed fingers...we took ownership of it and we fixed it. And we addressed it. And I think that that, in my opinion, is leadership.”
There are many things incorrect and misleading in Gardiner’s statement.
Let’s take his point that “when this issue happened...we took ownership of it and we fixed it.”
Email records show, when the website launched on Oct. 15, despite widespread reports that the website was failing, Panuccio and other top DEO officials called CONNECT a success.
Fast forward to Nov. 4, when Panuccio has his first opportunity to publicly explain to senators what went wrong. Does he own it? Absolutely not. Instead, he says the problems are minor and blames the media for exaggerating them.
Gardiner took a swipe at those in Washington who just pointed fingers. He’s referencing U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who has somewhat of a claim to be curious of Florida affairs since he represents the state. In October, Nelson was the first public official to demand a federal investigation into why the website was failing claimants. Nelson persisted with that request, which led to federal officials intervening in mid-January, convincing Panuccio to pay all claims that had been dragging on for more than a week. Turns out, unlike California, Florida has chosen not to pay those claims. Thanks to the prodding of Nelson and federal officials, those payments were made sooner, helping thousands of claimants who had gone weeks and sometimes months without money to pay for food, rent and bills.
By Gardiner’s rationale, it was Panuccio, not Nelson or federal officials, who are to credit for addressing the issue that was hurting thousands of Florida families.
Perhaps most startling is Gardiner’s statement that CONNECT is now fixed. Not even Panuccio is saying that.
True, major defects are now all fixed. And the number of calls to help centers and complaints to lawmakers and state officials have dropped. (Afterward, Panuccio told reporters that as of Feb. 28, DEO has stopped fining the vendor, Deloitte Consulting, $15,000 a day -- a development that hadn’t been announced by the agency in its daily or weekly updates).
But CONNECT is hardly surpassing the previous system because it is relying on 330 extra employees it began hiring in January (it took that long for Panuccio to recognize the problem) at a cost of $165,000 a week, plus untold overtime costs for staffers who have been working overtime, plus another consultant the state is paying more than $600,000 to oversee and advise on CONNECT. In addition, DEO has conveniently underplayed the role that an end to federal long term unemployment has played in reducing the caseload. Because Congress didn’t renew the program, as of Jan. 1, Florida had 88,000 fewer claimants to process, Panuccio said Wednesday.
As far Gardiner’s contention that Panuccio and the state have “owned” the CONNECT fiasco, that’s precisely what Panuccio has yet to do. Not once has he said he was to blame or that anyone at the DEO was at fault. Instead, he laid blame squarely at the vendor, Deloitte Consulting.
Asked if he had learned anything in this experience, Panuccio replied that he will be more vigilant with future testing of complicated websites and systems, a point made to him many times by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate.
But that didn't satisfy Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who had to ask the question again.
“How do you personally feel about how this has personally impacted you?” Lee asked Panuccio. “There’s no question this didn’t roll out to your satisfaction, the governor’s satisfaction, and to ours. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t anything any of us could have done. How do you feel personally about it?”
Again, Panuccio replied in a way that suggests contrition is not part of his road to confirmation.
“I’ve learned a lot about leadership, about managing large organizations,” Panuccio said. “It was a hard few months, much harder for the people being affected by delayed claims than it was for any of us, but I also feel proud of the team for working really tirelessly and countless hours to get this thing working.”
What exactly about leadership Panuccio learned he didn’t say, nor did the committee ask.
Instead, committee members, including the four Democrats who were there, confirmed him and in some cases gushed about how Panuccio had grown as a leader.
“The technological issues, I think, you’ve addressed that,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. “We’re on the right track. I will support you today because I think you’ve learned from your mistakes.“
Afterward, a smiling Panuccio shook hands with many of the members, like Lee, who supported his confirmation.
“I appreciate their vote and their support,” Panuccio said.