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Rick Scott puts young campaign staffers in high-profile, in-house lobbying jobs

TALLAHASSEE — One kept track of Gov. Rick Scott's inauguration invitations and donations. Another led his campaign field operations in Orlando. A third was a "tracker" who videotaped opponents for campaign research, about a year after he was fired from the Republican Party of Florida for misconduct.

These and other young foot soldiers in Scott's campaign are being rewarded with high-profile jobs as legislative affairs directors, or in-house lobbyists, in agencies under Scott's control.

Directors traditionally serve as liaisons between the Legislature and the agencies it funds. They are expected to know an agency's inner workings, offer advice on relevant bills and provide timely information to lawmakers.

As a candidate, Scott called it wasteful for the state to employ dozens of lobbyists. On MSNBC in August, Scott said: "That's not what state governments ought to be doing."

But as governor, he's using those positions to reward political supporters. The appointments reflect a desire by Scott to have more involvement in hiring practices at state agencies.

Their mission, Scott said, will be to carry out his agenda. Most are earning thousands less than their predecessors.

"We're bringing in people that believe in what I ran on or what I believe in, and that are hard-working," he said, "and they're going to go try to make sure that what I ran on is the agenda that gets implemented."

Asked if he saw validity to these positions now, he said: "The ones we've hired. … I feel good about the ones we've hired."

Here are some of them, all with experience on campaigns but none with the agency to which they were assigned:

• Jason Evans, 27, Department of Health, at a salary of $60,000. A Marine Corps veteran, Evans briefly ran Scott's northwest Florida field office before doing site advance at campaign events.

• Christopher Chaney, 28, Agency for Health Care Administration, $60,000. The state Republican Party paid Chaney, a former Bill McCollum staffer, $9,000 for voter turnout efforts during the campaign.

• Curt Siegmeister, 22, Agency for Workforce Innovation, $58,122. A recent University of Florida graduate, Siegmeister made $13,000 for contract work for the Republican Party last fall, and coordinated inaugural invitations and payments.

• Michael Manley, 30, Department of Lottery, $60,000. Manley earned $7,900 for leading campaign field operations for Scott.

• Anthony Bonna, 23, Department of State, $48,000. A recent Georgetown University graduate, Bonna banked $3,200 from the Republican Party for mining opposition research on Scott's gubernatorial run.

Then there's Tim Nungesser, the 29-year-old former campaign tracker now in charge of legislative affairs at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. He made news in November 2009 when the Republican Party of Florida fired him as director of field operations for creating a fake Twitter account that impersonated a critic of the state party. His post comes with a $65,000 salary.

Scott's team hired other campaign staffers for traditionally high-ranking positions in agencies' legislative affairs offices.

Alex Melendez, Scott's inaugural tickets and invitations coordinator and the campaign's field consultant in Tampa Bay, is now a title management analyst at the Department of Corrections, earning a $36,000 salary. Melendez, 20, replaced a person who had worked at the department for 21 years and made $70,000 a year.

Orlando Pryor got a similar position at the Agency for Health Care Administration after providing "site advance" for the inaugural committee and coordinating grass roots efforts in northeast Florida. Pryor, 21, graduated from the University of North Florida in July.

The campaign workers-turned-legislative affairs directors either did not respond to e-mails from Times/Herald reporters or redirected questions to Brian Burgess, the governor's communications director.

Scott has defended the hires, saying, "We interviewed. We found the best people we could."

A few directors that Scott hired do have experience in the field:

• Allen Mortham Jr., the 37-year-old son of former Secretary of State Sandy Mortham, will earn a $75,000 salary at the Department of Corrections. Mortham, a registered lobbyist, has represented the Public Service Commission, Department of Business and Professional Regulation and other clients over the last decade. He was a corrections officer from 1995 to 1997.

• Darrick McGhee, 33, will earn $85,000 at the Department of Education. McGhee previously held that position at the departments of Business and Professional Regulation and Elder Affairs. He was also internships director for former Gov. Jeb Bush.

• William Booher, 29, moves from the Department of Emergency Management's external affairs office to the agency's legislative affairs position with an $85,000 salary. He has worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in New Orleans.

Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said he has always found legislative affairs directors to be extremely knowledgeable about the legislative process.

Hiring young outsiders could be problematic, he said.

"I can understand that as a leader, you want people who are going to follow your directions," Kriseman said. "But at the same time, to me, good leaders surround themselves with good people, and people who aren't just 'yes men.' People who know the subject matter for which they've been trained."

"To not have that is certainly, I think, going to be very interesting."

Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Rick Scott puts young campaign staffers in high-profile, in-house lobbying jobs 01/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 7:27am]
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