The raging controversy over Gov. Rick Scott's removal of a respected law enforcement official escalated Wednesday as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he was "misled" by Scott's office and a St. Petersburg lawyer formally accused top state officials of Sunshine Law violations.
In addition, Attorney General Pam Bondi surprisingly said that she believed Scott's staff members orchestrated the ouster of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey without the governor's knowledge.
"We all knew there were going to be changes in the coming months," Bondi told an Associated Press gathering of state reporters. "But did I know that Jerry Bailey was going to be told he was fired and have his things packed up, his entire life as a career law enforcement officer in a cardboard box, and be told to be out of the office before the end of the day? Absolutely not. Nor do I believe the governor knew it."
Scott faces intense criticism from all directions over his removal of Bailey, who served as FDLE commissioner for eight years until he was forced out Dec. 16 with no public discussion of his performance. Bailey was one of several state agency heads who report not only to the governor but also to the three elected Cabinet members.
Bailey has called Scott a liar for saying that he resigned, and he has accused Scott's office of repeated political interference — charges Scott again denied Wednesday.
The three Republican members of the Cabinet, who have been harshly criticized for acquiescing to what they now view as a heavy-handed, back-room political maneuver, have become increasingly critical of Scott's actions.
The harshest criticism came from Putnam, who is seen as a leading candidate for governor in 2018. Putnam, who met with Bailey on Wednesday, all but accused Scott's office of lying in the way it orchestrated the dismissal, by sending messages through staff members that Scott wanted "new leadership" at FDLE.
"We were misled as to the timing and the process of how that would be handled," Putnam said. "It has revealed poor treatment of a good man."
Asked whether he believed Scott's version of the truth or Bailey's, Putnam paused and said: "Jerry Bailey's a fine man. He served our state very well. The way he was treated at the end of his distinguished career was shabby."
Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater have demanded a public discussion of the controversy at the next Cabinet meeting. It's set for 9 a.m. Feb. 5 at the state fairgrounds in Tampa in conjunction with the opening of the state fair, ensuring that the biggest controversy of Scott's tenure will literally play out in a carnival atmosphere.
Bondi said she agreed that the Sunshine Law might have been violated. She also suggested that a leading First Amendment advocate, Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, be included in an outside investigation.
Said Bondi: "I firmly believe it was done at the staff level."
The two staff members most directly involved in Bailey's removal were Scott's chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, and his former top lawyer, Pete Antonacci, who according to Bailey, gave him a three-word ultimatum to "retire or resign."
Scott's office contradicted Bondi's account by citing a set of questions and answers it compiled that states "the governor wanted new leadership" at FDLE. Scott has declined to discuss Bailey's firing in detail.
"Jerry Bailey was given the opportunity to step down, and he did," Scott said. "Then he waited until after Rick Swearingen was confirmed by the entire Cabinet to make his attacks. The attacks against me are absolutely untrue and ridiculous."
Before Bailey told the Times/Herald earlier this month of a half-dozen specific allegations of what he felt was improper interference, Scott repeatedly said Bailey did a "great job."
On Wednesday, Scott twice declined to answer the question of whether his maneuvering at FDLE has compromised the agency's independence.
In a sign that the FDLE fiasco is causing dissension in the Republican ranks, a leading GOP senator criticized the Cabinet members' behavior.
"I think it's disingenuous, I think it's political, I think it's piling on and I think it's uncalled for," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, in an interview that will air Sunday on Political Connections on Bay News 9. "If they had questions about it, they should have asked them when it happened."
Democrats accused Scott of dishonesty and of willfully violating the state Constitution he's sworn to uphold by not giving Cabinet members any voice in the replacement of the FDLE commissioner other than a perfunctory vote to appoint Swearingen, a 30-year FDLE veteran and Scott's hand-picked candidate.
"Hubris appears to be the organizing principle of our executive branch," said Senate Democratic leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "Only unconstrained hubris can explain a governor who believes he can fire people without proper authority, and without complying with the Florida Constitution."
Joyner blasted Scott for recruiting a Louisiana insurance official, Ron Henderson, as a replacement for state insurance regulator Kevin McCarty, even though McCarty has the support of Chief Financial Officer Atwater.
McCarty reports to both Scott and Atwater. The CFO, also considered a potential candidate for governor in 2018, said he opposes firing McCarty any time soon and he questioned why Bailey had to be driven from office so suddenly.
"I was not aware of any discontent," Atwater said. "I was just told, 'We're looking at a process.' I'm not sure anyone was intentionally misleading me at the time."
Bailey, 67, worked at FDLE for nearly three decades and served as commissioner under three governors. He has said only Scott interfered in the agency's operations.
St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner filed a complaint with Tallahassee-area State Attorney Willie Meggs on Wednesday accusing Scott, Cabinet members and their staffs of violating the Sunshine Law that requires public business to be conducted in public.
Scott's office replied that "it has been a longstanding convention for the governor's staff to provide information to Cabinet staff."
Meggs has publicly called the clash among Scott, the Cabinet and Bailey "nothing more than a squabble." Weidner suggested Meggs recuse himself and ask Scott to appoint another prosecutor to investigate.
Scott also offered a slightly reworked version of Putnam's proposal to improve the way state agency heads who report to Scott and the Cabinet are evaluated. Under Scott's proposal, Cabinet agency heads would be evaluated every year and could be removed from office for any reason — in effect putting them on one-year terms.
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Mary Ellen Klas and Joni James contributed to this report.