Monday, November 20, 2017
Politics

Steve MacNamara, the brass-knuckles gatekeeper of Gov. Rick Scott

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TALLAHASSEE — Steve MacNamara has officially become Tallahassee's Wizard of Oz.

The lawyer-lobbyist turned university professor is the brass-knuckles gatekeeper and omnipotent adviser to Gov. Rick Scott.

Since becoming the governor's chief of staff last July, MacNamara has controlled access to the governor and his schedule, assumed authority over appointments and dictated press releases and policy memos. He has directed the governor's message and reached into the bowels of agencies to remove people he doesn't like and install favorites.

"No one gets in to see the Wizard. Not no one, no how," reads the sign into MacNamara's office, an excerpt from the famous movie.

He played the same role as chief of staff for former House Speaker John Thrasher in 1998 and for Senate President Mike Haridopolos in 2010, each time temporarily stepping aside from his teaching, law firm and lobbying work.

Now, nine months later, the governor's relations with lawmakers have improved. Florida's unemployment rate is down. Scott had a successful legislative session with a modest agenda and, while his approval ratings remain low, they are on the rise.

"I think he's doing a great job,'' Scott said.

"I don't think there's any question he's made a difference for this governor,'' said Thrasher, now a state senator.

Scott's closest supporters and some tea party followers, however, say that the union between the newcomer governor and the wily insider is for them a Faustian bargain. Though they refuse to be quoted by name, several advisers to the governor — both inside and out of government — fear Scott is squandering his conservative credentials and his outsider brand by engaging in deal-making with special interests who have connections to MacNamara.

His critics call him Florida's "shadow governor," noting that agency contracts have been redirected, gambling allowed to expand, and a policy to privatize state prisons, which Scott didn't focus on during his campaign, has become an administration priority.

"I voted for the outsider and he has hired the consummate insider and he is acting like an insider now,'' said Henry Kelley of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party. "It's very disappointing."

He complained that issues Scott campaigned on, like illegal immigration, have been shelved while prison privatization has emerged. "Was that the governor's decision or was that MacNamara's decision?"

What's more, they worry MacNamara is running the government with an eye toward retaining influence and returning to lobbying when he leaves, as scheduled, later this year.

MacNamara, 59, has heard the rumors and denies planting the seeds for a return to lobbying. He had originally planned this fall to move to Montana, where he has a home in the mountains along a glacier fed river. But his wife, an anesthesiologist, has a job in Vermont and he plans to move there.

"I haven't done that in the past and it's not my M.O.,'' he said, dismissing the thought that he would need to cash in on his Scott administration connections. But as a tenured professor, he said, he's exempt from the two-year lobbying ban. "I could lobby anybody in state government."

Since MacNamara joined the office, five agency heads Scott brought to Tallahassee have left. Scott's general counsel and director of external affairs resigned. One of Scott's longest-serving staffers, deputy communications director Amy Graham, is leaving to join the Mitt Romney campaign, and at least two others have told the Times/Herald they are on their way out.

"If I only had to work for the governor, it would be great,'' said Jack Miles, former secretary of the Department of Management Services who resigned in March and blames clashes with MacNamara for his decision.

After a career in the private sector, most recently as a former senior director at CIGNA, the health care company, Miles agreed to accept Scott's offer to manage the agency that handles the nuts and bolts of government — from multi-million dollar contracts, leases on state buildings to health insurance for state workers.

Among the projects Miles negotiated was the state health insurance contracts, projected to save the state $400 million over a two-year period and another for computers, saving between 16 percent and 20 percent.

"The governor, on many occasions made it very clear: I hired you to run your agency. I won't interfere,'' Miles said. "That worked for a period of time, then changes started to happen in the governor's office and that was no longer the case."

In interviews with several current and former top advisers and agency heads, one pattern emerges: while each offered a plausible reason for leaving, most say working conditions under MacNamara contributed to their departure.

Others agency heads who have left their $140,000-a-year posts include Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who stepped down in January to run for Pasco County superintendent of schools, and Doug Darling, executive director of the newly-created Department of Economic Opportunity.

Darling resigned in January, four days after sending MacNamara a critical note complaining of excessive travel expenses from film commissioner Shari Kerrigan, whom MacNamara had recruited. He cited personal reasons for his resignation.

Frank Farmer resigned in March as surgeon general after leading an overhaul of the health department but clashing with lawmakers over a push to turn over public health duties to counties. He cited his wife's treatment for breast cancer but later told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that a mammogram performed in December was negative. Scott called his resignation "an unfortunate surprise."

Two others, Miles chief of staff Brett Rayman and Milt Champion, former director of the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, told the Times/Herald that they were asked to leave so that MacNamara could replace them.

Rayman, who served as a budget and policy official for three previous governors after a 23-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, said he considers Scott "probably the best governor I've ever worked with."

During Scott's first few months in office, the staff had "complete interaction" with the governor, Rayman said, and "understood what their mission was." Under MacNamara, however, "things have been completely disorganized.''

"He has political favorites he's trying to move around and I'm not sure the governor knows what MacNamara's doing,'' said Rayman, who now works for the Department of Financial Services, which is under Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, not the governor.

Among Rayman's frustrations: orders from MacNamara's deputy, Marc Slager, to "hold off" on signing a contract with a company to use federal money to map broadband access in Florida.

Another company that had lost the contract, Connected Nation, began pushing for legislation to move management of the contract from the DMS to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The move would have allowed for the bids to be reopened and for the company, and others, to get a second shot at the contract. DMS objected, warning the switch could cost the state federal grant funds. The company's lobbyists included Lanny Wiles, the husband of Scott's former campaign manager, and Al Cardenas, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

Slager said "they had already expressed their opinions and the facts" and didn't want them advocating a position.

Champion said he, too, also was asked to resign.

In an email to MacNamara in August, Marc Dunbar, a lawyer and part-owner of a horse track in Gadsden County, complained about the division's staff and hoped MacNamara could get them into shape. MacNamara had worked at Dunbar's law firm and listed the firm as a source of income on his financial disclosure forms as recently as 2010.

In September, Dunbar and his partners asked the division for permission to run rodeo-style barrel racing as a parimutuel sport, instead of the quarter horse racing they had intended when they obtained the permit. Shortly afterward, Champion said he was called into Department of Business and Professional Secretary Ken Lawson's office. "He told me Marc Dunbar is close with the governor's chief of staff and they want me to resign, so I resigned,'' Champion said.

With Champion gone, the division then approved the barrel-racing switch, a move which Dunbar and his partners hope will allow the track to get slot machines.

Champion now says that while "the law may not be clearly defined,'' had he remained at the agency he "would have strongly suggested we not approve it."

MacNamara, whose $189,000 is the highest salary in Scott's administration, believes it's important for the governor to have people in positions of power who can be trusted. "They're not free agents,'' he said. The policy positions "have to be in conformance with what the governor wants to do."

When MacNamara moved to the governor's office, he brought with him Chris Finkbeiner, Slager and administrative assistant Amy Bescaglia from the Senate. MacNamara made Finkbeiner and Slager his deputy chiefs of staff, giving them the same role as two women deputy chiefs of staff already in the governor's office, Jenn Ungru and Carrie O'Rourke, but paying them considerably more.

Finkbeiner and Slager make $135,000. Ungru and O'Rourke make $100,000.

MacNamara's first orchestrated ouster came with the removal of Department of Corrections Chief Ed Buss. The prisons chief had been lured to Florida from Indiana but, once here, became a vocal critic of a Senate-led effort to privatize 30 South Florida prisons.

The idea was an important one to MacNamara whose close friend, Jim Eaton, is the lead lobbyist for the Geo Group, one of the nation's largest private prison companies which stands to make billions in state business if they win the privatization contracts.

When a circuit court judge ruled in September that the budget maneuver used to pass the prison plan in 2011 was unconstitutional, MacNamara demanded Ungru "give me some options" so that if they win on appeal they could "move forward with all due speed and diligence" in pushing for the prison plan. The hearing on the appeal is set for June.

MacNamara dismisses the forced departures as routine and not out of the ordinary for a governor running the nation's fourth-largest state.

"People lose jobs; people lose contracts,'' he said. "It's calibrating people more than anything else. It's not controlling people."

Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

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