TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's trusted jobs chief is stepping down.
Jesse Panuccio, 35, has led Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity through controversy over technical problems with the online filing system for unemployment benefits and been one of Scott's top advisers in jobs and economic development since being appointed executive director in 2013.
But his resignation from the $141,000-a-year state job comes as he faces a confirmation vote in the Florida Senate, where support has been running thin.
Scott announced the departure, effective Jan. 8, at an event Friday morning in Lake Mary. A replacement will be announced "in the coming weeks."
According to Panuccio's letter of resignation, he is leaving "to begin a new chapter of my career and life." The governor's office said he will "pursue new opportunities."
State Sen. Nancy Detert, chairwoman of the Commerce and Tourism Committee, said Panuccio was in "extreme danger" of not being confirmed in the spring. Panuccio would have needed confirmation from her committee and two others, including one run by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, another frequent critic of Panuccio's.
"I was not a supporter of his," said Detert, R-Venice.
She said the governor's appointments to other agencies have mostly been good at communicating with state legislators. On Thursday, she gave a strong endorsement of Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll and Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Samuel Verghese.
"I never saw that from Jesse Panuccio," Detert said. "He stonewalled us."
Panuccio's last pointed interaction with the Legislature came just 16 hours before his resignation was announced. Late Thursday, before a committee Latvala chairs, Panuccio was on the defensive trying to explain why he was proposing to eliminate 74 positions from the state's unemployment compensation program.
Latvala repeatedly questioned Panuccio on why he was proposing to cut staff just months after the $77 million CONNECT system was tagged as one of the worst in the nation in getting benefits to newly unemployed workers. From the start, CONNECT has had technical problems that led to inaccurate data entry and erroneous payments, possibly exposing Floridians to privacy risks.
"Didn't you use as an excuse that you didn't have enough help? Wasn't that one of the things that were expressed, that you didn't have enough staff?" Latvala asked.
"Staffing levels are an issue for that," Panuccio conceded.
Still, Panuccio defended the reductions, saying that those are vacant positions that have been empty for some time. That only produced more questions from Latvala as to why the agency asked for those empty positions to be authorized in the budget the Legislature approved in June, while now it is saying they aren't needed.
Panuccio discounted the poor marks Florida gets for paying out first-time benefits. He said there are a host of benchmarks that the federal government uses to judge the state. He added that Florida gets high marks for trying to crack down on unemployment compensation fraud, a topic Panuccio has stressed as a key goal of the agency.
In October, Latvala blasted Panuccio over comments he made about a labor union lobbyist's politics.
"You know, I frankly don't like your attitude. I think there's an arrogance in the way you present this that's a sense of entitlement, and I just think it's wrong," Latvala said. "We're here to serve the people."
Latvala would not comment Friday on Panuccio's resignation.
Although tensions are high between Scott and the Senate, President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in a statement that Panuccio has "done a great job of starting the conversation about ways to improve our job recruiting and retention programs."
Scott also had glowing things to say about Panuccio, who was the governor's general counsel before taking over the DEO.
"Jesse has been a loyal and trusted adviser since the start of my administration and has worked on major issues including economic policy, dozens of judicial appointments, and significant litigation on behalf of Florida families," Scott said in a statement.
Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.