Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Heckuva job, Jesse (w/video)

On behalf of the esteemed Academy of Tallahassee's Arts and Sciences of Bureaucratic Bungling and Back-Slapping Cronyism, this year's winner by unanimous vote of the "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!" lifetime achievement award is Jesse Panuccio, who turned a $63 million state unemployment benefits website into an abacus of befuddlement.

As Panuccio gets lost on his way to the podium to accept the coveted golden feedbag statuette, let's review the extraordinary lack of competence that led to the CONNECT website being compared to the Bangladeshi bus system and likely cemented his confirmation to the $141,000-a-year post as executive director of Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity.

There is no truth to the cruel rumor Panuccio beat out Baghdad Bob, the ghost of Civil War Union Gen. George McClellan and whoever thought hiring Ronan Farrow as an anchorman at MSNBC was a great idea.

Panuccio had his hand firmly on the tiller of the CONNECT train wreck when the website launched in October, proclaiming with all the confidence of the captain of the Costa Concordia that everything was humming along smoothly.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of out-of-work Floridians, the very people CONNECT was supposed to help, were unable to access the website to apply for unemployment benefits.

If it was the intention of the DEO to stiff unemployed, desperate Floridians, then Panuccio could claim CONNECT was functioning like a Swiss watch.

Federal labor figures indicate as many as 20,000 people may have been denied claims. Eventually Panuccio was forced to hire 330 employees to attempt to unscramble the backlog at an additional cost to taxpayers of more than $600,000. And it wasn't until U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson went ballistic in prodding the feds to sort out Panuccio's La Brea Tar Pit of Internet lunacy that the state's unemployed began to see some relief.

When so many politicians love to insist government should be run more like a business, Panuccio shouldn't get a job sharpening Lotto ticket pencils.

But this is Florida. This is Tallahassee. This is the Legislature, which honors the flummoxed, the bumfuzzled, the clueless. Panuccio so easily passed muster before in this strange land because these elected officials looked into his eyes and saw themselves adoringly gazing back.

This is Tallahassee — where veracity goes to die.

During his Senate confirmation hearings so far, which are little more than an air kiss fest, Panuccio testified that when the CONNECT website turned into a cyber dud, he boldly stepped to the fore to take "ownership" of the problem. Actually, Panuccio blamed everyone from the media to the Girl Scouts to the Trilateral Commission to the system's primary vendor, Deloitte Consulting.

Everyone but himself. That famous buck-stopping took a detour.

The 33-year-old boy king of obfuscation also blamed Washington, although it was eventually Nelson and the feds who came to his rescue.

At the height of the $63 million CONNECT calamity, all Panuccio did was watch and deflect blame. Little wonder he has such a promising career awaiting him in government.

It was right about here that the chairman of the Senate's appropriations subcommittee on transportation, tourism and economic development, Andy Gardiner, R-Not Exactly Inspector Javert, lobbed a big, sloppy, juicy softball in Panuccio's direction. He asked what the lad had learned in the wake of the CONNECT debacle.

Panuccio replied he had learned a great deal about managing large organizations and expressed pride in the hard work of the DEO staff to get CONNECT working to help people whose claims had been delayed for so long.

Yet DEO still has not released figures on just how well CONNECT is working. But we might well infer that under the wise and savvy leadership of Panuccio, CONNECT is operating at a higher rate of efficiency than a National Security Agency computer.

You might wonder how it is possible for someone who so botched a $63 million program to be rewarded with a $141,000 job administering a government agency with 1,621 employees and a $872.7 million budget?

It's likely that after examining young master Jesse Panuccio's deft avoidance of accountability, the Florida Senate appears impressed with the cut of his fib. Congratulations.

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