‘Pay to play — or else:’ Florida’s banking regulator alleges CFO corruption

A lawsuit raises questions about inappropriate lobbyist influence in CFO Jimmy Patronis’ office.
Public Service Commissioner, Jimmy Patronis questions a petitioner during a meeting, Thursday, April 16, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla.  (Tampa Bay Times Photo/Steve Cannon)
Public Service Commissioner, Jimmy Patronis questions a petitioner during a meeting, Thursday, April 16, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. (Tampa Bay Times Photo/Steve Cannon)
Published June 26, 2019|Updated June 26, 2019

Ronald Rubin, Florida’s banking regulator, has been suspended for weeks over allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women.

But in an explosive lawsuit, he’s alleging inappropriate — and illegal — behavior by the man who was key in getting him the job: Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

The lawsuit tries to deflect blame for the accusations against Rubin, who was named commissioner of the state’s Office of Financial Regulation in February. The office regulates banks, check-cashing stores and payday loan shops.

Within weeks, a woman in his office complained she had to hide from him at work after he invited her to lunch, then twice took her up to his condo to check out renovations while offering her use of his Washington D.C. condo.

Rubin, who has described that allegation as a misunderstanding, claims that that case and others were ginned up by Patronis after Rubin didn’t hire a lobbyist’s friend.

But although his lawsuit doesn’t address Rubin’s own behavior, it raises uncomfortable questions about how much influence lobbyists have in Patronis’ office.

The lawsuit, which often reads more like a press release than a legal filing, accuses Patronis of running a criminal enterprise.

“The enterprise applies a 'Pay to Play – Or Else’ system of blackmail and intimidation to extract illegal campaign contributions, install loyalist patrons and eliminate ‘outsiders’ who might expose their unlawful activities,” it states.

The lawsuit lays out several accusations:

  1. Rubin got the job with the help of a lobbyist, Paul Mitchell, who lobbied Patronis’ chief of staff to pick Rubin. Patronis, whose office led the search for the bank regulator job, then told his fellow Cabinet members that Rubin was the only finalist worth considering.
  2. After Rubin was hired, one of Mitchell’s clients, MCNA Dental founder Jeffrey Feingold, asked Rubin’s father to thank Patronis by donating to him.
  3. Patronis’ chief of staff and Mitchell then asked Rubin to hire the wife of one of Mitchell’s friends. Her interview went badly, and she later ended up joining other women in filing a complaint against Rubin.

Many of the facts are not in dispute, however. Patronis’ office has said that his chief of staff did discuss hiring Mitchell’s friend for the job.

But Patronis has declined answering questions about the behavior of his chief of staff, including why he or his office was meddling in the hires at another state agency.

“There’s been no meddling,” Patronis told the Times/Herald last week, before the lawsuit was filed. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Patronis’ spokeswoman said Tuesday that nobody in Patronis’ office pressured Rubin to hire anyone. She declined to answer other questions raised in the lawsuit.

“On advice of counsel, we do not comment on pending litigation,” she said.

The lawsuit is only against the lobbyist, Mitchell — not Patronis, his chief of staff, or anyone else mentioned in the complaint.

Rubin’s lawsuit also cites text messages from Mitchell to Rubin — and Feingold to Rubin’s father — describing their influence within Patronis’ office.

The day Rubin was hired, Mitchell apparently texted Rubin, “You should call dr feingold and thank him for his help. Or maybe even better, your dad could. :-)”

Feingold also allegedly asked Rubin’s father, wealthy developer Walter Rubin, to make a $1 million contribution “as payback for Patronis’ supporting Rubin’s nomination," the lawsuit states.

Rubin’s father did not make the contribution.

Mitchell was apparently tipped off to the employee’s complaint about Rubin days before it was made public, which would violate Florida law.

On May 2, Mitchell apparently texted Rubin, “We have to talk. Not good." On the call, Mitchell was aware that a woman had complained about Rubin’s behavior during the lunch, according to the lawsuit.

Eight days later, Patronis’ office posted that woman’s complaint online and announced that Rubin was suspended.

On Tuesday, Rubin’s lawyer asked Attorney General Ashley Moody to open a criminal investigation into why Patronis posted the employee complaint online in the first place.

Employee complaints are “confidential and exempt” under state law until they’ve been finished. Patronis’ inspector general is still investigating the complaints against Rubin. Rubin’s lawyer has asked Gov. Ron DeSantis’ inspector general to take over, something DeSantis’ spokeswoman said the office is reviewing.

A spokeswoman for Moody said the attorney general would review the results of the current investigation, “which addresses all relevant allegations.”

Mitchell declined to comment. The general counsel for MCNA Dental said Feingold would comment in the very near future.

Times/Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross and information from the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.