TALLAHASSEE — One member of the Florida Atlantic University presidential search committee that will decide whether Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater becomes a finalist used Atwater as a reference when she was appointed to the Florida Board of Governors in 2011.
Wendy Sartory Link, an attorney at the West Palm Beach law firm of Ackerman, Link & Sartory, listed Atwater as one of three references when she was appointed to the Board of Governors for the university system by Gov. Rick Scott. Her law firm has also won more than $7.5 million in contracts with the state-run insurance carrier, Citizens Property Insurance, whose management Atwater oversees.
Link will be among the 15 members of the FAU search committee who will interview the 10 remaining applicants for president of the university on Thursday and Friday. The group will narrow the list to three finalists and the ultimate selection will be made by the university's board of trustees at its meeting Jan. 17.
The university has hired a search firm for $90,000, plus an estimated $9,000 in expenses, to conduct a nationwide search to fill the vacancy left when former president Mary Jane Saunders resigned. After receiving 61 applications, the presidential search committee narrowed the list to 10, including eight academics as well as Atwater and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, both Republicans.
Neither Atwater nor Link would comment on whether she can judge Atwater objectively given her reliance on him in her application. A spokesman for FAU compared the relationship between Atwater and Link to two families "sending their kids to the same day care."
"We do not believe that a search committee member (or, for that matter, a Trustee) should recuse himself or herself from considering a presidential candidate simply because he or she might know that candidate personally," said FAU spokesman Joshua Glanzer.
Brian Hughes, a spokesman for Atwater, said the CFO trusts Link's judgment as well.
"Jeff knows Wendy Link to be an extraordinary civic leader, who is guided by the highest ethics and integrity, and it's simply an offensive and baseless personal assault to imply otherwise," Hughes said.
Although Link is not a member of the FAU board of trustees, its conflict-of-interest policy indicates that "Trustees shall disclose and resolve potential conflicts of interest and ethical concerns."
In addition to listing Atwater as a character reference, Link's other references were Tom Grady, who formerly served as a state legislator, commissioner of the Florida Office of Financial Regulation and interim chief of Citizens Property Insurance, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.
Fresen said he knew Link because she had previously served on the Palm Beach State College board of trustees from 2007 to 2011 and she lobbied him for funding for the school and both also shared an interest in land use law.
Grady, a lawyer who had previously worked with Link's firm, gave the company its first contract with Citizens when he served as its interim director of Citizens in 2012. The $1.5 million contract runs through July 2014 to coordinate litigation against the company from people disputing sinkhole claims.
In December, the Citizens Board awarded Link's law firm another $6.5 million contract to coordinate the ballooning number of lawsuits against the company for delaying and denying claims. Atwater did not have a direct role in any of the contracts but, as a member of the state Cabinet he, the governor and the attorney general provide oversight of the state-run agency.
Link, a Florida native who graduated from University of North Carolina and Duke University law school, shares the governor's view that the state should refrain from raising university tuition — a position that is not shared by all university presidents.
"I don't think there's a direct correlation between the amount of tuition and the quality of education you get," she told the Times/Herald in a 2011 interview.
Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida, suggested that the FAU search committee should review its policy regarding potential conflicts of interest before forging ahead with its interviews.
"Before the search committee makes a decision that could impact spending of taxpayer dollars, it should make its conflict-of-interest policy clear to the public," said Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida.
"The committee could adopt the ethics requirements of the FAU Trustees, the Board of Governors or define its own rules," he said. "A best practice for any elected or appointed official would be to disclose all actual or potential conflicts of interest before a vote."
Efforts to reach Anthony Barbar, chairman of the FAU board, who also serves as chairman of the search committee, were unsuccessful.
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.