TALLAHASSEE — Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis pressured an agency to drop its involvement in a case against a Miami financial adviser after that adviser gave his campaign $25,000, according to the state’s former top banking regulator.
Drew Breakspear, who served as the state’s Commissioner of Financial Regulation from 2012 until he was forced out by Patronis in 2018, said his former boss’ intervention on behalf of a donor was just one example of a workplace with conflicts of interest.
Breakspear told the Times/Herald during a recent exclusive interview that he and his staff were sometimes told to back off.
“I got to the point of saying, ‘I’ve got better things to do with my life than work for a poor manager whose integrity I did not trust,’” Breakspear said, referring to Patronis. “I think the meddling should not happen.”
His allegations echo those of his successor, Ron Rubin. Only weeks after Patronis successfully championed Rubin for the $166,000 job in January, Rubin says Patronis’ chief of staff pushed him to fire people and hire the friend of a lobbyist.
Patronis then pushed for Rubin to resign, after he was accused of sexual harassment just weeks into the job. Rubin has not denied the allegations in the woman’s complaint but has called it a misunderstanding.
Both Rubin and the woman’s lawyer have asked for criminal investigations into Patronis for releasing her redacted complaint.
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The allegations from both men have shattered a pervasive code of silence in the upper reaches of state government, which usually blocks most internal discord from spilling into public view.
Both men paint an unflattering portrait of Patronis, a former state representative and Panama City restaurant owner who was picked from relative obscurity by former Gov. Rick Scott to one of the state’s top four elected positions in 2017.
Last year, he won election to the seat, which pays $128,000. Patronis manages the state’s auditing and accounting functions and serves as the state’s fire marshal.
Along with the governor, the attorney general and commissioner of agriculture, Patronis is one of four people who oversee the state’s banking regulator, a position that is supposed to be above politics.
A spokeswoman for Patronis denied Breakspear’s allegations, saying Patronis’ office never took a position on issues that Breakspear said he did. When Rubin’s allegations about Patronis came out last month in a lawsuit, the spokeswoman denied those charges, too.
Breakspear, 73, now lives in Naples, spending much of his retirement traveling. He said he doesn’t miss the Capitol’s political jockeying, though he’s been following Rubin’s situation from afar.
“I did not get direction or recommendations on specific hiring, but on some of these (issues) we dealt with, the pattern sounds reminiscent,” Breakspear said, referring to Rubin’s dealings with Patronis.
Recollecting his time under Patronis, Breakspear mentioned the case of Miami financial adviser Patrick Dwyer. Dwyer was trying to have customer complaints against him seeking more than $7.2 million scrubbed from his formal record.
All but one of the complaints were denied or closed without any resolution, but Dwyer tried for years to get them removed anyway. A California judge in 2015 had ruled against him after a two-year court battle.
An arbitration panel later awarded him the right to delete the complaints. But the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority fought the panel’s decision, arguing that Dwyer manipulated the process. It asked Breakspear’s Office of Financial Regulation for support, and his office obliged.
That apparently upset Dwyer, whose lawyer wrote to Patronis on April 12, 2018 complaining that Breakspear’s office “is acting as a mere puppet” of the authority, according to a Politico report last year.
Patronis’ office, however, was neutral on the issue, Patronis spokeswoman Katie Strickland said.
“Our office never took a formal position on this issue and did not pressure (Breakspear’s office) to intervene in any way,” spokeswoman Katie Strickland wrote in an email to the Times/Herald.
That’s false, according to Breakspear. He said Patronis’ staff wanted them to “drop” their involvement with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and its case against Dwyer but wouldn’t explain why.
“They did not come to me directly,” Breakspear said. “They came to the staff."
Breakspear said his office didn’t follow the order.
On May 3 last year, three weeks after Dwyer’s lawyer wrote to Patronis, Patronis announced he wanted Breakspear gone.
After Breakspear left, he learned that earlier, in late March, Dwyer had made a $25,000 donation to Patronis’ campaign — by far the largest political contribution Dwyer has ever made to a state race, and his only donation to a Cabinet race, records show.
“You sort of sit there and say, ‘Wait a minute,’” Breakspear said.
Dwyer declined to comment through a spokesman.
Breakspear cited two other examples of Patronis injecting politics into the typically staid world of bank regulation.
In one instance, he said Patronis’ staff was pressing Breakspear to appoint particular people to the board of a bank being regulated by Breakspear’s office.
Lawyers for the bank, Breakspear said, wanted to appoint certain people to its board, but the office resisted, because the people weren’t legally qualified.
“We also got pushed from Patronis’ office on this one, ‘Why don’t you do this?’” he said.
Breakspear said he didn’t comply, and the issue was still unresolved by the time he left. Because of the secrecy around banks, Breakspear said he couldn’t reveal the name of the bank or the people the bank wanted on the board.
Patronis’ spokeswoman denied it: “This did not occur.”
Breakspear also cited the example of Walmart, which wanted Florida to allow the retailer to offer check-cashing services for higher amounts without subjecting them to oversight from a state fraud-fighting database.
Breakspear opposed it. If Walmart could avoid the database, people would just go there to have their fraudulent checks cashed, he and others feared.
Walmart had lobbied Patronis on the issue, and Breakspear said his staff was hearing Patronis wanted it.
“His office was saying, ‘We ought to do this,’” Breakspear said. “And I said, ‘It’s going to kill the database eventually.’”
Breakspear then asked to meet with Patronis.
Breakspear said Patronis was noncommittal during the meeting.
“I got the feeling they wanted to raise the limit,” he said.
Walmart did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But last year, Walmart representatives told the Times/Herald that its own anti-fraud programs were a “highly effective” substitute for the state’s database.
“For us, this issue is not about fraud, it’s about serving our customer’s needs,” Walmart spokeswoman Monesia Brown said in a statement last year. “We think the current limit in Florida is outdated and our customers agree.”
Breakspear’s opposition later helped kill a Republican-sponsored bill to raise the limit during the Legislature last year.
Patronis’ spokeswoman said the account “isn’t true.”
“Our office has been on the side of protecting consumers on this issue, especially considering our fraud unit uses this database frequently in our investigations,” she wrote.
When Patronis called for Breakspear’s resignation on May 3 last year, he cited, without examples, a “lack of cooperation, responsiveness, and communication.”
Breakspear said Patronis wanted him gone because he wouldn’t comply with Patronis’ wishes. He said Patronis’ office almost never reached out to him, and when it did, he always responded.
For weeks, he said, he resisted stepping down. He said he wanted to discuss the issue in front of the other Cabinet members. But during the standoff, he said he got an anonymous call from someone telling him he wouldn’t be allowed to speak.
“It was just a low-level person who said behind the scenes, ‘This is what’s happening,’” Breakspear said. “I couldn’t even tell you the name.”
Breakspear said he didn’t know if the call came from someone in Patronis’ office.
“Our office has no knowledge of any staff member calling Mr. Breakspear to tell him he would not have an opportunity to speak at a Cabinet meeting,” Patronis’ spokeswoman said.
Patronis’ communications office last year sent reporters copies of an intra-office sexual harassment case, asserting that Breakspear’s handling of it was the reason he should step down.
Breakspear said the allegation came out of the blue. For one, the harassment investigation was conducted by Patronis’ office, not Breakspear’s.
The case involved an office employee who grabbed another employee’s breast while drinking after attending an out-of-town conference. Both worked for Breakspear. The man said it was an accident that happened when he nearly fell out of his chair.
The woman felt otherwise. In the end, Patronis’ office said it didn’t constitute sexual harassment and that the man shouldn’t be disciplined. But the office did recommend Breakspear’s office adopt a no-drinking policy.
Breakspear’s second-in-command took the recommendation, but chose not to implement the alcohol policy. They went beyond the recommendation by Patronis’ office, though, by choosing to give the male employee “corrective counseling.”
Breakspear said the news release to reporters was the first he’d heard that Patronis was upset with the issue.
“The whole sexual harassment thing, to me, was just something to throw at (me).”
He decided to step down days later.
Looking back, he said he helped the office adapt to emerging financial trends and build strong relationships with federal and trade regulators.
“I was very proud of it,” he said.
The standoff with Breakspear’s successor could end differently. Patronis announced Thursday he wanted to fire Rubin at the next Cabinet meeting, later this month.
Times Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.