SUN CITY CENTER — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on Saturday said a Tampa Bay Times report that his office didn't background check concealed weapons applicants for non-criminal offenses for more than a year was "flat wrong and misleading."
But he acknowledged that an employee in his office failed to review the results of those background checks, which led to 291 people receiving permits who were not supposed to have them. Putnam's office has since revoked those permits, he said.
"This was a very serious issue," said Putnam, a Republican candidate for governor. "We took immediate action."
On Friday, the Times reported that the state of Florida failed to conduct national background checks on tens of thousands of applications but should have more precisely stated that the background checks were not reviewed, which is an essential part of the approval process.
Last year, an Office of Inspector General investigation found that in February 2016 the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was not using results from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that ensures applicants who want to carry a gun do not have a disqualifying history in other states.
The employee in charge of reviewing the background checks could not log into the system in April 2016, the investigator learned, and then stopped trying to gain access. The problem went unresolved until discovered by another worker in March 2017.
During that time, 349,923 people applied for concealed weapons permits, Putnam said. All of them were run through three different background check systems — two criminal databases that use a fingerprint check and the NICS system, which uses personal identifying information to determine if someone is ineligible due to a drug use conviction, if they are an undocumented immigrant, they were involuntarily committed or were dishonorably discharged from the military.
But the NICS system flagged 365 concealed weapons permit applications as potentially ineligible and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services approved them anyway. Putnam said his office later determined that 291 people received permits who shouldn't have.
Putnam blamed the employee, who he called "negligent and deceptive" for not acting on the results of the background check. He said he ordered the inspector general investigation immediately after he was informed about the problem.
That employee, a former mailroom worker, told the Times she was under pressure to quickly process applications and questioned why she was put in charge of this.
The investigation indicated that the department may not have had a backup system to ensure the task was completed. The only other employee who regularly accessed NICS data was a mailroom supervisor who was barely trained in the system, the report stated.
Department employees interviewed in the investigation called the NICS checks "extremely important," the report said, and if it came out they weren't accessed, "this could cause an embarrassment to the agency."
Putnam asserted that "no one's safety was at risk" because those 291 people would not have been able to purchase a firearm.
Democrats reacted swiftly to news of the inspector general report, with some calling for further investigation and others for Putnam to resign. All five Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Palm Beach developer Jeff Greene, Orlando-area businessman Chris King and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine — said Putnam should consider dropping out of the governor's race.
Putnam gave no indication Saturday he was even considering it. At a campaign rally in Sun City Center, Putnam energized a crowd of supporters with his conservative platform and folksy charm, dropping references to Interstate 75 traffic and SEC football rivalries.
Meanwhile, in Pensacola, Putnam's Republican primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, held a rare campaign event where he for the first time responded to the inspector general report, calling it "very concerning."
"It seemed like he wasn't minding the store when we needed him to be there," DeSantis told reporters afterward. "I also want to know why, if this report was done a year ago, why are we just now finding out about this?"
Asked why he did not inform the public when he learned about this a year ago, Putnam reiterated he acted quickly to revoke licenses and change the department's practices so it wouldn't happen again. Now, he said, there are more "eyeballs" making sure the work is complete and a "more seamless technology transfer" of the NICS background check results.
"I'm here to solve problems," Putnam said. "We didn't wait on a bad story to solve problems. I initiated the inspector general and the review of processes and procedures upon learning of this breakdown."
Times/Herald staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.