TALLAHASSEE — More than three years after Florida’s top financial regulator was fired, he has lost a lawsuit against a lobbyist he blamed for the ouster.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper last week issued a 17-page summary judgment rejecting former Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Ronald Rubin’s allegations of wrongdoing by lobbyist R. Paul Mitchell.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Cabinet members fired Rubin in July 2019 after a controversy sparked by an employee lodging a sexual harassment complaint against Rubin. Mitchell initially helped Rubin get the job — but later turned against Rubin and pushed for him to leave the post, according to court documents.
Rubin disputed accusations of sexual harassment and other misconduct and, in the lawsuit, alleged tortious interference by Mitchell, defamation and violation of the Florida Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization, or RICO, Act.
But Cooper rejected Rubin’s allegations, including that Mitchell was involved in a “pay-to-play” scheme for government jobs and that Mitchell influenced an inspector general’s investigation into Rubin.
“Plaintiff contends that Mitchell fabricated the sexual harassment complaints or had knowledge that they were false,” Cooper wrote. “The record does not support the contention.”
Mitchell, a lobbyist with The Southern Group, an influential Tallahassee firm, had ties to state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who ultimately nominated Rubin to become commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation. The state Financial Services Commission, made up of DeSantis and Cabinet members, hired Rubin in early 2019.
But Rubin was suspended in May 2019 after an employee filed a complaint about alleged sexual harassment. That prompted the inspector general’s investigation and, ultimately, Rubin’s firing.
In a document filed this year opposing Mitchell’s motion for summary judgment, Rubin’s attorneys contended that Mitchell, Patronis and other people “conspired” to get Rubin appointed as commissioner because they “believed they could control” him. The document alleged, in part, that Mitchell and the others wanted Kim Grippa, whose ex-husband, Tony Grippa, was a Patronis supporter, to be appointed general counsel of the Office of Financial Regulation.
Rubin did not hire Kim Grippa, a move that he alleged helped spur efforts by Mitchell to oust him.
“Rubin was appointed in February 2019, but it soon became apparent that he was not pliable, and Mitchell realized he had chosen the wrong vehicle to repay political favors and increase his influence over Florida’s government,” Rubin’s attorneys wrote in the June 17 document.
But in a motion for summary judgment this year, Mitchell’s attorneys wrote that the only thing discovered in the case was that “Mitchell is a lobbyist, who works with government officials and routinely communicates with them to provide advice, fill jobs and advocate for his clients.”
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“No one was out to get plaintiff, there is no criminal conspiracy and Mitchell is not a criminal mastermind,” the May 20 motion said. “Nothing more has been gleaned. There are no documents, no admissions, no exchanges of money, no inexplicable communications, no evidence the women complaining about plaintiff were lying or that the investigators were ‘bought.’ Nothing at all to raise plaintiff’s allegations of being framed by a criminal political ‘pay-to-play’ enterprise above the level of rank speculation. In short, plaintiff has no one to blame for his fall from grace but himself.”
Cooper, who held a hearing July 7 in the case, wrote in last week’s ruling “that Mitchell, a lobbyist, knew and communicated with government officials and that such (officials) communicated with each other, does nothing to prove the existence or purpose of a criminal enterprise.”
“Plaintiff points to texts from Mitchell to Rubin wherein he recommended a candidate for general counsel, an angry call between the two after Rubin interviewed the candidate, efforts to get plaintiff to resign rather than face a humiliating and predictable investigation into the sexual harassment complaints and assistance in helping a sexual harassment complainant report her experience,” Cooper added. “However, these acts of political expedience are not crimes, even if they may be seen as dishonest or distasteful, as they lack the requisite use of intimidation, physical force, threats, misleading conduct or offers of pecuniary benefit required for criminal conduct.”
By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida