Nikki Fried accuses DeSantis of ‘sunshine’ secrecy in bank regulator appointment

There was no discussion about why the governor appointed a Coral Gables securities lawyer.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks during the general assembly at the Florida Democratic State Convention Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks during the general assembly at the Florida Democratic State Convention Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Dec. 3, 2019|Updated Dec. 3, 2019

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried accused Gov. Ron DeSantis and the two Republican Cabinet members of operating outside of the sunshine during Monday’s appointment of a new state banking regulator.

“Obviously they knew exactly who they were appointing yesterday,” Fried, the lone Democrat on the Cabinet, said Tuesday. “That was apparent by the quickness of the meeting, and it meant in my view that those conversations were happening outside the sunshine. That’s a real problem to me.”

Monday’s brief telephone meeting of the governor and Cabinet was to name a new commissioner for the Office of Financial Regulation, which regulates banks, check-cashing stores and payday loan operations. The office has been in turmoil for the past 18 months, with its last commissioner ousted after being accused of sexual harassment.

There was no discussion about any of the three finalists for the new commissioner. DeSantis immediately moved to appoint Coral Gables securities lawyer Russell Weigel as the next commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation.

Russell Weigel. (Courtesy of Russell Weigel)
Russell Weigel. (Courtesy of Russell Weigel) [ Courtesy of Russell Weigel ]

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis seconded DeSantis’ motion, and he and Attorney General Ashley Moody voted to appoint Weigel to the job. The meeting lasted just a minute and 17 seconds.

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Fried abstained from Monday’s vote, and said in a statement afterward that she was “not confident that the most-qualified applicants were among the final candidates.”

The Cabinet met in person Tuesday, and Fried elaborated on her objections afterward.

“This is a really important position,” Fried said. “To not have an open conversation about the qualifications of these candidates, I would be doing a disservice by just voting no and not having this conversation.”

After Tuesday’s meeting, both DeSantis and Patronis gave vague reasons for why they supported Weigel over the other two finalists, Mike Hogan, a banker from Gainesville, and David Weintraub, a Plantation attorney who represents investors in cases against broker dealers.

“I liked his experience,” DeSantis said of Weigel.

“All of the qualifications were being met,” Patronis said. “I appreciate what I got to learn about him. All the background checks came back clear.”

RELATED: Florida’s bank regulator discussed sex, harassed women, investigation says

Patronis then accused Fried of making a “rookie move” by abstaining instead of voting.

“She had an opportunity to cast a vote,” Patronis said. “I think it was just a mistake on her part.”

In a brief interview, Weigel, 55, said the news of his appointment came as a surprise. Though he was aware of Monday’s call, he learned 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.

Weigel, who interviewed publicly for the position earlier this fall, said he wants to modernize the office, though he did not provide specifics. The job earns $166,000 per year.

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He is the third commissioner of the office since May last year, when Patronis pressured Commissioner Drew Breakspear to resign. Patronis complained that Breakspear wasn’t communicative, but Breakspear accused Patronis of ousting him for not dropping a case against one of Patronis’ campaign donors.

Patronis then advocated for Ronald Rubin, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer, to replace Breakspear. But within weeks, Rubin was accused of inappropriate behavior with female staffers.

Rubin then turned around and accused Patronis of ousting him after he refused to hire and fire certain people, and he produced text messages indicating that a lobbyist had improper influence with Patronis’ staff.

Patronis has yet to turn over public records relating to Rubin’s hiring and ouster.

Information from the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.