Editorial: Scott owes public answers about forcing out FDLE chief

Gov. Rick Scott owes Floridians an explanation about why he abruptly ousted the head of the state's top law enforcement agency last month. Associated Press
Gov. Rick Scott owes Floridians an explanation about why he abruptly ousted the head of the state's top law enforcement agency last month.Associated Press
Published January 13 2015

Gov. Rick Scott owes Floridians an explanation about why he abruptly ousted the head of the state's top law enforcement agency last month. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is supposed to be an independent agency untainted by politics, and the sudden disappearance of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey has the strong smell of political payback. Scott should clear the air, or Cabinet members and legislators should demand a straight answer.

Scott and Bailey did not even have their stories straight Tuesday, after the governor and Cabinet appointed Bailey's replacement. The governor told reporters that Bailey resigned and that he did a "great job.'' Bailey's response to Steve Bousquet of the Times/Herald capital bureau: "If he said I resigned voluntarily, that's a lie.'' It certainly doesn't sound voluntary after several dustups between a pushy Scott re-election campaign and an FDLE that held the line on political interference. The governor's then-general counsel, Pete Antonacci, went to the FDLE last month and told Bailey to resign or retire immediately.

Bailey was FDLE commissioner for eight years and served under Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist as well as Scott. He was praised by Cabinet members, and Florida's crime rate has dropped. So why did Scott want him out?

The FDLE was created in 1969 and reports to the governor and Cabinet for a reason: So one powerful politician will not be able to control the state's most powerful police agency. So why haven't Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam asked the governor in public for a specific explanation about Bailey's ouster?

Bondi, who too often acts like the governor's lawyer instead of the independent attorney general, praised Bailey on Tuesday. She said she had no idea why he left and then said she thought he retired. That apparently would be incorrect. Is Bondi misleading Floridians? Or is it that she doesn't know what is going on and doesn't care enough to ask? Atwater was similarly uninformed and incurious.

There could be legitimate reasons for making a change at the FDLE. Someone could have been dissatisfied that the FDLE did not exactly go all out to investigate graves at the now-closed Dozier School for Boys, and University of South Florida researchers found many more graves. Atwater previously expressed frustration about the length of time it takes to get results from the FDLE crime laboratory. Or perhaps someone would be uncomfortable with the way the FDLE is now investigating deaths at state prisons, which fall under the governor. But none of those issues were publicly raised with regard to Bailey's departure.

Scott and the Cabinet unanimously voted for Rick Swearingen Tuesday as the new FDLE commissioner. But there was no formal search for applicants; Scott named Swearingen as the interim when Bailey left. Swearingen happened to be director of the Capitol Police and a member of the FDLE Command Staff, where he oversaw security for the governor. Two weeks ago, the governor appointed Swearingen's twin brother as acting Leon County sheriff.

All of this looks like the governor is settling a score and making an unusual effort to ensure the leaders of the top law enforcement agencies in Tallahassee are close to him. If he has a more defensible explanation, he should share it with the public.

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