TALLAHASSEE — After a confirmation hearing in which defensive Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees called allegations of sexual harassment and improper financial disclosures “mischaracterizations,” the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services recommended approval of Rivkees by an 8-2 vote.
For the first time since he was nominated by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rivkees finally appeared before senators to answer questions that have been percolating for nine months.
The committee pressed the University of Florida department chair and physician about his sexual harassment investigation in 2014, a financial disclosure audit and his current financial arrangement with the state.
Rivkees opened his hearing by highlighting the work he has done since his appointment to address Florida’s Hepatitis A outbreak this summer, as well as the Department of Health’s work on HIV cases and opioid use in the state.
“I view this role as special and a cherished opportunity to build upon the pressing challenges facing the health of Floridians,” he said.
He was supported by healthcare community lobbyists as well as committee members like Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who said she worked with Rivkees on children’s issues involving the Division of Children’s Medical Services.
Last one appointed
Rivkees was the last of DeSantis’ major agency secretaries to be nominated, last April, following a protracted search for a doctor who would support the governor on issues like medical marijuana.
At first glance, Rivkees appeared highly credentialed: the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UF’s College of Medicine and physician-in-chief at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, an expert in his fields who had previously taught at Yale.
But, after the News Service of Florida reported that he had been the subject of a sexual harassment investigation at UF and that an auditor found unintended lapses in one of his financial disclosures, Rivkees’ confirmation proceedings were put on hold.
The university report, spurred by a February 2014 complaint, said Rivkees allegedly made inappropriate comments repeatedly, such as “If we can’t agree on this we’ll all have to get naked in a hot tub and work it out.”
Rivkees denied another allegation in the report: that he had told UF veterinary students at an off-campus event that “we have something in common, neither one of us can have sex with our patients.” Rivkees asserted that he had told the students, “Make sure you don’t have relationships with your patients.”
The report found the allegation of making inappropriate comments to be “substantiated” and that a university dean said Rivkees was counseled about his behavior.
Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat and sexual assault survivor who has made issues of sexual harassment a centerpiece of her legislative career, asked Rivkees a series of questions about the allegations and what he’s done to ensure similar situations don’t happen in the Department of Health.
When he spoke in vague terms about the allegations, she read the “hot tub” comments out loud for the rest of the committee to hear.
Rivkees once acknowledged he “may have said it more than once,” but said that line was meant to be a joke to ease tensions in the pediatric intensive care unit where he worked. But Wednesday he said that the allegations were “personal attacks” made by faculty who didn’t like his approach to leading the Department of Pediatrics.
“I ran a department that needed some revamping,” he said. “This ruffled the feathers of faculty members.”
Rivkees admitted that he didn’t know whether there was sexual harassment training in place at the state’s health department, which convinced Book to vote no on the confirmation.
“For you to not know if there is a sexual harassment training in the department is a problem for me,” she said. “These issues give me great pause.”
The other no vote was from Sen. Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat who questioned Rivkees’ public health background. The bulk of his background is in pediatric work, per his resume.
Financial questions, too
The News Service of Florida also reported that a 2014 financial audit — stemming from an anonymous complaint about possible outside financial conflicts of interest — found that Rivkees had not properly disclosed his consulting firm to the university, which he subsequently corrected on his disclosure form.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said at the time that the chamber would wait to take up Rivkees’ nomination, asserting there would not be enough time remaining at that point in the legislative session to vet the physician.
When Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, asked about the audit, Rivkees said the News Service report was a “mischaracterization.”
Rivkees, even without being confirmed by the Senate, has been in the role since June — Florida law permits agency secretaries to serve through the end of two legislative sessions without the Senate’s sign-off before they must be confirmed or step down.
The physician’s start date was delayed by the negotiation of a two-year agreement with the state to keep him employed by UF, where he is still a tenured professor. The state pays UF a total of $140,000 annually to cover Rivkees’ “assignment” to serve as surgeon general, and according to a state website Rivkees also makes $243,000 from various contracts and grants at the university.
Though committee chair Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, asked questions of Rivkees’ commitment to the job, Rivkees assured that “Florida has a full-time surgeon general.”
“I am on the clock 24/7,” he said. “We have an incredibly talented and capable staff that provides tremendous support for the department as well.”
Rivkees will now face additional hearings before the Senate Health Policy and Ethics and Elections committees. Once he clears the committee reviews, the full Senate will vote on his confirmation.
He did not take questions from reporters.