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Gov. Ron DeSantis orders investigation into broken unemployment system

“There’s a lot of money that went in to this,” DeSantis said. “I think that’s something that’s very important for the people of Florida to know."

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis said he will ask his inspector general to investigate the contract with the company that built Florida’s broken unemployment website seven years ago.

DeSantis said he wants his inspector general, an office that was created in 1994 to provide internal oversight of state agencies, to investigate how the state paid $77.9 million on the website and how the contract was amended numerous times.

“There’s a lot of money that went in to this,” DeSantis said. “I think everything needs to be looked at, 100 percent."

The announcement of an investigation into a past administration was a rare rebuke of his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott. The two Republicans have become political rivals, and Scott was quick to cast an eye on DeSantis’ chief of staff, Shane Strum, on Monday.

Strum was chief of staff for former Gov. Charlie Crist when Deloitte Consulting was awarded the multi-million dollar contract a few months before Scott took office. Scott oversaw the development and rollout of the site, which launched in 2013.

“The Governor and the Inspector General should ask his Chief of Staff why he and the Crist Administration picked Deloitte as the vendor,” Scott spokesman Chris Hartline said in a statement. “That would be a good place to start.”

Hartline called the dispute between DeSantis and Scott, who are both considered to be eyeing a presidential run in 2024, a “dumb political squabble.”

"Real leaders work to solve problems and get the job done,” Hartline said. “Sen. Scott is focused on solving problems to help the people of Florida during this crisis.”

Just hours before DeSantis announced the new probe, Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried, the state’s highest-ranking Democrat, requested an investigation. DeSantis has suggested there would be one, but did not explicitly say so until Monday.

DeSantis has continued to blame Florida’s unemployment crisis on the state’s seven-year-old online unemployment system, known as CONNECT, calling it a “jalopy” in pass press conferences.

On Monday, DeSantis said the system was so bad that the system would have been overwhelmed even in a slight recession.

“If we had anything other than 3 or 4 percent unemployment, this would have been a problem,” DeSantis said. “So that’s not a good use of taxpayer money.”

Lawyers filed separate class-action lawsuits last month requesting the state immediately pay claims and asking for damages from Deloitte. An executive with Deloitte Services told the Times/Herald last week that they haven’t been involved with the system since 2015.

“"We have not been involved in the system since then," Jonathan Gandal, managing director of Deloitte Services, said in a statement last week. "Clearly, any lawsuit involving us would have no merit.”

When CONNECT launched in 2013, at an eventual cost to taxpayers of $77.9 million, the failings of the system were immediately obvious, with the system breaking down under the workload and claimants failing to receive benefits.

Although Deloitte was publicly blamed by Scott’s administration, it continued to bid on and win state contracts. State auditors pointed out a multitude of failings that remained unfixed under five more years of Scott and more than a year under DeSantis.

When asked why he hadn’t heeded the warnings in the 2019 audit, DeSantis blamed Ken Lawson, the man he named as executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the unemployment system.

Lawson, a holdover from the Scott administration, was pushed aside by DeSantis and his oversight of the unemployment system was given to another department secretary on April 15. Data released by the state days later showed just how little progress had been made over Lawson’s first month: by April 19, just 40,193 Floridians had received unemployment out of more than 1.5 million claims filed.

“That’s a question for Ken Lawson. That was a report to Lawson,” DeSantis said Monday. “It was never anything that reached my desk. I never had anyone ask me for additional funding.”

The governor said the problems flagged by auditors are not the ones that are plaguing the site today.

“These are different problems,” DeSantis told reporters. “They’re more significant problems, and obviously they’re problems a $77 million system was not able to handle off the bat.”

Florida has been the slowest state in the nation at processing coronavirus-related unemployment claims, and it’s lagged behind much smaller states in simply getting money into the hands of its citizens.

Nevada, which has a similar tourism-based economy as Florida, had paid out $449 million in federal unemployment benefits through Wednesday. Yet Florida, despite having a population seven times larger than Nevada, still hasn’t paid out that much. As of Saturday, the state managed to pay out $428.6 million in federal unemployment benefits. That’s about 61 percent of the total $700 million Florida has paid out to applicants so far.

The state saw a record surge in coronavirus-related unemployment claims the week of March 15, which immediately overwhelmed CONNECT.

More than 1.7 million claims have been filed so far, and as of Sunday, 478,666 of those people have been paid.

Among those still awaiting their compensation is Craig Quidley, 58, who said he was furloughed from his job as the night shift engineer at the Ocala Hilton hotel on March 22.

He tried to file for unemployment the next day, but, like many Floridians who have filed previously for unemployment, needed to reset his PIN to log in to the state system.

Related: Ron DeSantis was warned about Florida’s broken unemployment website last year, audit shows

Resetting PINs has been one of Floridians’ most common problems with the system, requiring applicants to contact a call center that has had wait times of 12 hours or longer — if calls are able to go through at all. PIN resets have been a problem with the system since 2013. The state is paying up to $110 million on additional call centers to handle the backlog, but long wait times remain.

Quidley couldn’t reach anyone to reset his PIN until April, when he had to drive to Gainesville from Ocala to mail in a form at a FedEx office. The system now shows he submitted a claim — on April 19. Quidley, who has yet to see a penny in aid, called it “ridiculous.”

“I feel like the situation needs to be resolved today,” Quidley said. “I don’t feel like we need to wait another two to three days. We’ve waited long enough.”

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