Thursday, September 20, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott's new version of FDLE ouster called 'absolutely untrue' by Gerald Bailey

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Monday issued yet another account of Gerald Bailey's ouster from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Bailey broke a self-imposed silence to call it "absolutely untrue."

The former FDLE commissioner also gave the Times/Herald new details of a Dec. 16 visit from Scott's top lawyer that abruptly ended his 35-year career in law enforcement and set off the ugliest controversy of Scott's tenure, with Cabinet members calling for outside investigations and First Amendment experts exploring possible Sunshine Law violations.

Scott's press office claimed for the first time that on the day he was ousted, Bailey was asked to work out a transition with his successor at FDLE, Rick Swearingen. Bailey said no such request was made and that Scott's office again was not telling the truth.

"When the governor's office gives you until 3 o'clock to resign, you're not working out anything with your successor," Bailey told the Times/Herald.

The Scott claim came in another "FAQ" document in which Scott's press office chooses its own questions and provides its own answers in the FDLE controversy. Scott's office does not respond to specific questions about Bailey's ouster.

The FAQ asked: "Did Gov. Scott instruct anyone on his staff to remove Gerald Bailey immediately?" The answer: "No. Gerald Bailey was asked to work out his transition with his successor."

Bailey said Scott or his staff was "totally disingenuous."

"I did, willingly and on my own initiative, meet with my successor the next day," Bailey said, recalling a two-hour meeting with Swearingen in what had been Bailey's office the day before.

Swearingen was confirmed by Scott and the Cabinet in a perfunctory public vote on Jan. 13, the only time the issue has been discussed at a public meeting.

The FAQ also contradicted Attorney General Pam Bondi's claim that Scott's staff ousted Bailey without the governor's knowledge.

"Q: Does Governor Scott agree that his staff decided to force Gerald Bailey to resign immediately without the Governor's direct knowledge?" The answer: "No."

An unsuspecting Bailey said that Scott's general counsel, Pete Antonacci, arrived at his office on a Tuesday morning and told him: "We've known each other a long time, and this is not my idea. You've got two choices: resign or retire, and do it before 5 o'clock."

Bailey said Antonacci never mentioned a transition and was so insistent on an immediate firing that he denied Bailey's request to give a long-planned commencement address the next day to a graduating class of state troopers in Tallahassee. The state highway safety agency had already announced Bailey would give the speech.

"No," Bailey said Antonacci told him. "You won't be the commissioner tomorrow morning."

Antonacci has repeatedly declined to offer his version of the day's events "on or off the record," as he told the Times/Herald. His last day on the state payroll was Monday, Scott's office said.

Scott communications director Jackie Schutz would not elaborate beyond the FAQ. She had no response to Bailey's latest statements.

Bailey also recalled asking Antonacci for time to finish health insurance paperwork, and that Antonacci told him, "File for Medicare."

After being given until 5 p.m. to resign, Bailey said Antonacci changed the time to 3 p.m. because "the media is on this."

Matt Dixon, a reporter with the Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau, raised a question about Bailey's abrupt departure on Twitter, then Scott's office rushed a news release announcing Swearingen's interim selection without mentioning Bailey's name or why he was no longer in charge.

Monday marked the second time that Bailey has accused Scott or his office of lying. Bailey said Scott was not telling the truth Jan. 13 when he told reporters that Bailey had resigned.

Scott has repeatedly changed his statements about Bailey's ouster.

On Jan. 13, Scott told reporters Bailey "resigned" and "did a great job."

Later that day, his office said Bailey "served honorably," but that Scott "thinks it's important to frequently get new people into government positions of leadership," the first time Scott acknowledged he wanted Bailey replaced.

Two days later, on Jan. 15, after Bailey described several specific incidents of what he considered political interference with an independent police agency, Scott accused Bailey of "petty attacks." On Jan. 28, Scott said Bailey "was given the opportunity to step down and he did."

The FDLE commissioner reports to Scott and the three elected Cabinet members, who will discuss how to improve appointments of future Cabinet-agency heads at 9 a.m. Thursday at the state fairgrounds in Tampa. The Cabinet meeting is open to the public.

Scott and the Cabinet are a collegial body subject to Florida's Sunshine Law, and all of their decisions must be made in public. But Scott has said that his staff privately told staffs of Cabinet members he wanted "new leadership at FDLE" and that they did not object.

"My staff sat down with the staff of the other Cabinet officers. None of them objected," Scott told WINK-TV in Fort Myers on Friday.

Cabinet members have confirmed being told that in December, but said that they had no idea Scott would fire Bailey with three hours' notice.

A St. Petersburg lawyer who has accused Scott, Cabinet members and their staffs of violating the Sunshine Law through those staff-level talks is now considering filing a lawsuit, possibly with the backing of open government advocates and news organizations.

Attorney Matthew Weidner asked Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs to open an investigation and Meggs declined.

The First Amendment Foundation, a statewide open government advocacy group backed by many Florida newspapers, is researching whether it is a violation of the Sunshine Law for the governor and Cabinet members to use staff members as "conduits" to relay the thoughts and opinions of one board member to another.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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