Under fire, Florida emergency management director resigns

TALLAHASSEE — The man in charge of disaster preparedness for the state abruptly resigned Monday amid allegations from his own employees that he discriminated against female staffers, overstated department travel savings and made improper purchases with his state taxpayer-funded credit card.

Ruben Almaguer, Florida's interim emergency management director since Craig Fugate left to head ­FEMA in May, is accused in a whistleblower complaint of allowing men but not women in his division to stay overnight at the state's logistics response center in Orlando — a move he insists he made "for the privacy and safety of female senior staff."

Employees also allege that Almaguer made questionable purchases on items including airfare and technology "gadgets" while circumventing state and federal rules for hiring and contract bids.

"In my brief tenure … I have personally witnessed numerous practices which violate state and federal statute," division bureau chief Gwen Keenan wrote to Gov. Charlie Crist on Nov. 23. The governor's office Monday did not provide specific information on how much money Almaguer is alleged to have misspent.

Almaguer, 45, denied wrongdoing in a memo sent to Crist's office early Monday morning, and initially refused to resign from the post.

"I am confident that any allegations against me are baseless," Almaguer wrote to chief of staff Shane Strum and deputy chief of staff Kathy Mears. "Resigning my position would only reward those few who may be maneuvering against me for ulterior personal motives."

By late Monday, Almaguer reconsidered and submitted his resignation, insisting "my conscience is clean."

But his earlier memo and response to the allegations reveal a department roiled by a divisive power struggle between Almaguer and his No. 2 man, David Halstead.

Crist on Monday named Halstead to the interim director post.

"The safety and security of the people of Florida is of the utmost importance," Crist said in a statement. "Accordingly, effective immediately, I am appointing David Halstead."

The emergency management division is one of Florida's least glamorous, but in a state prone to hurricanes and other severe weather, it is one of the most vital. The division is charged with protecting Florida and its residents during hurricanes, tornadoes, sinkholes and other disasters with more than 130 full-time staff and an annual budget of $745 million.

Almaguer, formerly a high-ranking county emergency management official in Miami-Dade, did not respond to an interview request from the Times/Herald. In his memo to Strum and Mears sent at 7 a.m. Monday he welcomed a "formal, full and fair investigation" of the whistleblower complaint against him — and asked that his own allegations against Halstead be investigated.

Almaguer asked Strum and Mears to investigate whether Halstead had the "proper authority to force the resignation" of the division's general counsel, Tom Congdon, and whether it was appropriate for Halstead to place senior staff member Roy Dunn on administrative leave during the holidays to consider "whether he was loyal to Mr. Halstead or to me."

He said Halstead also threatened another senior staffer, Shirley Collins, "demanding" that she express her loyalty to Halstead over Almaguer.

Congdon filed a whistleblower complaint Monday with the auditor general alleging that Halstead and others mismanaged contracts and employees. Halstead could not be reached Monday.

But Keenan, the division employee, outlined concerns about Almaguer's leadership in her November letter asking Crist to "reconsider" his promotion of Almaguer to temporary director.

"His brief tenure has undermined the readiness, professionalism, integrity, and morale of the division" of emergency management, Keenan wrote.

A longtime Coast Guard member, she wrote that she joined the division in January 2009 eager to work with longtime emergency management director Fugate, a nationally lauded disaster planner who led Florida through the busy 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, as well as the tornado that swept through The Villages when Crist took office in 2007.

Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Fugate, and Crist kept him after he was elected in 2006. But Fugate left Florida in the spring to serve as head of FEMA under President Barack Obama.

When Crist appointed Almaguer to take over Fugate's post, he made clear it was a temporary decision but did not set a time line for naming a permanent director. Halstead also wanted the job and was thought to be a front-runner.

"Ruben has been a strong team member within Florida's emergency response team for more than two years," Crist said when announcing Almaguer's appointment. "His vast experience responding to both domestic and international disasters qualifies him to step into the leadership position."

Keenan told Crist that while the "professionalism" developed under Fugate was "well established," Almaguer has been an "overbearing" and "arrogant" leader. Her letter describes instances in which Almaguer intimidated employees and tried to skirt hiring laws so that an acquaintance could get a job. She said he tried to take a satellite phone intended for emergencies with him on a vacation in the Bahamas.

"It is after great consideration and with a heavy heart that I make this request," Keenan wrote. "Please remove Interim Director Almaguer from his position in the Florida Division of Emergency Management."

In his resignation letter, Almaguer insists he has served the state well and done nothing wrong.

"All of my conduct on and off the job has been lawful, proper, ethical and honorable," he wrote.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet and Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

FAST FACTS

Ruben Almaguer

. Age: 45

. Personal: Married with two grown children. Born in Cuba and raised in Miami.

. Education: Master's degree in public administration, Florida International University. Master's degree in Homeland Security and Defense, Naval Postgraduate School. Completed the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

. Experience: Interim director, Florida Division of Emergency Management, since May 2009. Deputy director from January 2007 through May 2009. Served more than 20 years as a division chief and paramedic for the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. Responded to the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 Pentagon attack, hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, and other disasters.

Source: Division of Emergency Management

Under fire, Florida emergency management director resigns 01/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 4, 2010 11:14pm]

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