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Florida Cabinet picks new financial regulator

Russell Weigel becomes the third financial regulator in less than two years

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and members of the state Cabinet on Monday named Coral Gables securities lawyer Russell Weigel to be Florida’s third top financial regulator in less than two years.

In a conference call lasting just over a minute, DeSantis recommended Weigel for the job with a $166,000-a-year salary. DeSantis was backed by state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody, while Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried abstained.

No comments were made on the selection of Weigel over Mike Hogan, a banker from Gainesville, and David Weintraub, a Plantation attorney who represents investors in cases against broker dealers.

Weigel will succeed former Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Ronald Rubin, who was fired in July after allegations of sexual harassment.

After Monday’s conference call, Moody issued a statement that pointed to Weigel’s financial-services and legal experience, which she said, “will greatly benefit the state of Florida and help rebuild the Office of Financial Regulation.”

Fried, who walked out of the July Cabinet meeting before the vote to fire Rubin, issued a statement Monday expressing concerns over the search process and a lack of confidence in the finalists.

“I am glad that the Office of Financial Regulation will finally have leadership, but I wish this had been a more transparent process,” Fried said. “While I appreciate all applicants for the position, I am not confident that the most-qualified applicants were among the final candidates. Because of these concerns, I did not participate in today’s vote to appoint a new commissioner.”

In a brief interview with the Miami Herald, Weigel, 55, said the news of his appointment came as a surprise. Though he was aware of Monday’s call, he was informed of the outcome by a family member after the fact.

“You’re so early in the process today that I really have very little information for you, other than the fact that I know that I am the commissioner,” he said.

But Weigel, who interviewed publicly earlier this fall for the position, said he broadly wants to modernize the Office of Financial Regulation in his new role, though he did not provide specifics.

“It has not adapted to current technology,” he said. “That hinders our state banks from being able to compete with national banks and out of state banks... We have to grow the financial system in a way that keeps it competitive — the banks are employers, too.”

Weigel spent 11 years as a federal Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement attorney, according to his application, serving in management, investigation and litigation roles. A graduate of Vanderbilt University and the University of Miami School of Law, he also briefly served as a Florida assistant state attorney, pursuing criminal prosecutions, before joining the SEC.

In 2005, after five years of working in private practice, Weigel started a firm whose practice represents clients in a variety of securities-related issues.

“I have skin in the game in Florida, having lived and worked here for more than 30 years,” Weigel wrote in an Aug. 7 cover letter applying for the job. “I will land running.”

Rubin was hired in February to succeed former Commissioner Drew Breakspear, who resigned in June 2018 under pressure from Patronis. Just months later, however, Rubin was accused of sexual harassment and became embroiled in a high-profile dispute with Patronis.

DeSantis, Patronis and Moody ultimately decided to fire Rubin in July.

Rubin, who denied the harassment charges from an agency employee, has filed a lawsuit against a lobbyist with ties to Patronis and accused Patronis of running a “powerful but corrupt enterprise” that engages in “pay to play — or else” politics.

DeSantis and the Cabinet share oversight of the Office of Financial Regulation.

Weigel declined to weigh in on the ongoing accusations traded between Rubin and Patronis, but told the Herald he hoped that the past turnover in the post “is not a harbinger for me, either.”

“I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of any of that,” Weigel said. “All I know is probably what you know, which is there’s some troubling accusations and circumstances, and I don’t know which is right yet or who is right ... I hope I’m idealistic enough and optimistic that I’m fresh — I’m not hopefully going to get embroiled in or create political issues in an agency that I don’t believe is meant to be a political football.”

But Weigel also acknowledged that the allegations raised some concerns: “I think everybody that has contemplated this position in the last year probably has wondered the same thing: Am I stepping into a minefield that has no exit?”

Fried didn’t object Monday when DeSantis proposed the salary for Weigel, which matches the salary Rubin received.

No start date has been set for Weigel, who is expected to move to Tallahassee. Weigel said he has not yet made plans for what will happen to his Coral Gables firm when he takes up the new post: “I don’t know what’s going to happen to it,” he said. “I haven’t had time to talk about any kind of transition planning.”

Weigel also said, given the timing of his appointment, that he is unsure how much input he will have on lawmakers returning to Tallahassee in January for the new legislative session.

“The time for this active term seems rather short and might be too short to get anything done this year,” he said. “But there’s multiple things that have to be done ... there’s plenty of other options to be working on.”

Beau Beaubien, DeSantis’ director of Cabinet affairs, said after Monday’s conference call that he had recently touched base with all three finalists to ensure they remained interested in the position. DeSantis and the Cabinet interviewed the finalists on Oct. 22.

Fried, a Democrat, had been unsuccessful in repeated calls for DeSantis and the other Cabinet members, all Republicans, to name an interim leader for the Office of Financial Regulation. The agency has nearly 360 employees and oversees banks, credit unions, other financial institutions, finance companies and the securities industry.

In July, Fried argued that the vote to remove Rubin wasn’t properly noticed on the agenda. She later released a statement in which she agreed with the decision to remove Rubin.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.