TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Rick Scott took office, he adopted a policy for his agencies that required out-of-state travel to be "cost effective" and "have a direct and measurable benefit to getting Floridians back to work."
It was a point that Scott's chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, hammered home at staff meetings. It prompted the head of the Department of Economic Opportunity, Doug Darling, to compile a list of trips that had "true market impact and the best chance for success" and get MacNamara's approval.
But MacNamara changed the rules for Shari Kerrigan, a lawyer and friend of MacNamara's whom the governor appointed the state's film commissioner in December.
A month on the job, she asked MacNamara to let her travel to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, even though the trip wasn't on the list approved by MacNamara before Kerrigan had the job.
When Darling told Kerrigan she couldn't go, "her reaction was unprofessional and abusive to staff,'' he wrote in a Jan. 24 memo to MacNamara. "Without notifying either her direct supervisor or myself, she attended on her own. Unfortunately she did not notify us that she was attending and, to date, has not called. We only learned this by contacting her staff."
Kerrigan took the trip to the world famous film festival, stayed three nights at the Zermatt Resort in Park City, Utah, and ended with a trip to Miami Beach for a meeting of television executives. The cost to taxpayers: $2,713. She then stayed four nights at the Raleigh in Miami Beach and spent $1,293 there, including $93 in "room service/mini bar charges," according to her travel vouchers.
MacNamara acknowledged Wednesday that he had approved the trip — over Darling's objections.
"Yes, I did,'' he said. "I'm the chief of staff."
Darling was among the agency heads who had agreed to step down at the end of the legislative session at MacNamara's request. But, after receiving a memo from Darling complaining about Kerrigan, MacNamara ordered Darling to leave by the end of the week, Jan. 26.
Darling used the memo to remind MacNamara of the governor's repeated travel policy.
"Before Shari was named Interim Film Commissioner, you directed me to review the planned expenditures of the Office because they appeared excessive to both of us,'' he wrote. He attached a memo that listed the trips that would be approved by the state's economic development office and said that MacNamara had approved them.
Neither MacNamara nor Darling would discuss on the record the nature of their dispute, but the disagreement is one of the few times conflicts among MacNamara and other members of the governor's staff appears in a paper trail. MacNamara prefers spoken communication with his staff.
Kerrigan defended the trip as "important for Florida to have representation at prestigious entertainment festivals held around the country.'' She said the state currently has 160 film-related projects in production.
Although the governor's travel policy requires that agency heads provide the governor's office monthly reports detailing "all completed travel and its benefit to the taxpayers of Florida,'' the film office couldn't produce any report relating to the Sundance festival.
Kerrigan is the daughter of Pensacola personal injury lawyer Bob Kerrigan who was a member of Florida's "Dream Team" of lawyers that successfully sued the tobacco industry and won a multibillion dollar settlement in 1997. Bob Kerrigan has since become a generous benefactor to Florida State University and its law school, where MacNamara served as associate dean for 13 years.
MacNamara first hired Shari Kerrigan when he assumed the role of both chief of staff and general counsel in the Florida Senate in 2010. Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich complained at the time that with MacNamara in the dual role, the Democratic caucus needed its own general counsel. MacNamara named Shari Kerrigan, who was paid $37,500 for part-time work.
When MacNamara moved to the governor's office in July 2011, he said he had no intention of bringing Kerrigan with him until the governor's director of appointments, Elaine Jordan, was reviewing Kerrigan's resume and found she had film experience. "I think I found a job for Shari,'' MacNamara recalled Jordan telling him.
Kerrigan's application was given to Darling and, by November, the sitting film commissioner, Lucia Fishburne, announced her resignation. "The new administration has selected another individual to head our office," Fishburne said in a note she sent to members of the Florida Film and Entertainment Advisory Commission.
Before she worked in the Senate, Kerrigan was executive director of the Kerrigan Family Charitable Foundation set up by her father. Her job as state film commissioner pays $85,000.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.