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Ron DeSantis names Visit Florida leader to oversee jobs agency

DeSantis’ transition team on Thursday announced Ken Lawson’s appointment as executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Also, it said the governor-elect will recommend Port Tampa Bay Chief of Staff Jamal Sowell as the next president and CEO of Enterprise Florida.
SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
 Ken Lawson
SCOTT KEELER | Times Ken Lawson
Published Dec. 14, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — Ken Lawson, who was brought in to run the state's tourism-marketing agency nearly two years ago as its spending was under fire from House leaders, has been named the jobs chief for Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis' administration.

DeSantis' transition team on Thursday announced Lawson's appointment as executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Also, it said the governor-elect will recommend Port Tampa Bay Chief of Staff Jamal Sowell as the next president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, the state's business-recruitment agency.

Jamal Sowell

DeSantis, who served as an attorney in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps, emphasized in a news release that both served in the U.S. Marines. Lawson was a judge advocate general, while Sowell is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom Afghanistan.

Lawson took over Visit Florida in January 2017, as the agency faced a controversy that included House leaders exposing an expired $1 million contract between the tourism-marketing agency and Miami rapper Pitbull to promote the state.

Lawson had been secretary of the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation before joining the tourism agency. Outgoing Gov. Rick Scott has touted record tourism numbers for the state in recent years.

"I have no doubt Ken will continue this tradition of outstanding leadership at the Department of Economic Opportunity and help the state continue to be an economic powerhouse, bringing new businesses to Florida and creating jobs for Floridians," DeSantis said in a statement.

With the new appointment, which requires Senate confirmation, Lawson will replace Cissy Proctor, who, at $142,000 a year, had run the Department of Economic Opportunity since December 2015.

State agency heads working directly under Scott were advised Tuesday by Susie Wiles, who is overseeing DeSantis' transition team, to prepare resignation letters that take effect before the new governor's Jan. 8 inauguration.

DeSantis called Sowell "a person of integrity who has served his country and, now, has successfully helped to lead and grow the Port of Tampa Bay — one of the largest economic engines in the region."

Sowell also was a student-body president at the University of Florida and an assistant to former University of Florida President Bernie Machen.

Sowell, whose selection requires approval by the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors, is in line to replace Pete Antonacci, who Scott appointed as Broward County supervisor of elections upon the suspension of Brenda Snipes.

Antonacci, a one-time general counsel for Scott, was brought into Enterprise Florida at $165,000 a year in July 2017 after state House leaders eliminated the public-private agency's use of a number of taxpayer-funded subsidies to attract businesses.

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