FDLE's new chief breaks silence, saying he's not "the governor's boy"

Published Feb. 14, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen on Friday broke his silence on a crisis that has rocked his agency, bristling at perceptions that he was hired as "the governor's boy."

Speaking publicly for the first time, Swearingen said he was "shocked" that his predecessor and mentor, Gerald Bailey, was driven from office by Gov. Rick Scott after nearly three decades. Swearingen said it was unfair to suggest he was placed as FDLE commissioner to do the governor's bidding and it reflects an ignorance of the agency's mission.

In an interview Friday at his office near the state Capitol, Swearingen told the Times/Herald he won't compromise his integrity or FDLE's independence.

"If I'm asked to do anything illegal, unethical or immoral, I can walk away tomorrow," he said. "I wouldn't do anything to bring discredit on this agency."

Swearingen, 55, reached the pinnacle of his career in an improbable and controversial way, after a power play by Scott's office that Cabinet members, who also oversee FDLE, said blindsided them. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has said he was "misled" by Scott and that the treatment of Bailey, a respected law enforcement official, was "shabby."

Weeks of raging controversy have ensued. Along with an ethics complaint filed against Scott, a dozen news organizations have sued Scott and the Cabinet, accusing them of violating Florida's open meetings law in orchestrating Bailey's ouster.

As a result, Swearingen finds himself in the politically precarious position of being viewed as too close to Scott.

"I don't want the troops thinking that there's any truth behind any of this stuff that I was put in here because I was the governor's boy," Swearingen said. "Do I have a relationship with him? Absolutely, I do. Something he saw in me as the detail leader instilled a trust in me that I appreciate."

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has raised questions of favoritism in Scott's unilateral move to appoint Swearingen as FDLE's interim commissioner with no search. The Cabinet ratified Scott's decision Jan. 13.

"I want to be sure that Mr. Swearingen is believed by all parties, the public included, as one who has stepped into a role because of all of his credentials and his experience," Atwater said at a Cabinet meeting in Tampa last week in which he cited the "perception of favoritism."

Swearingen said he was in a briefing with his Capitol police lieutenants on Dec. 16, discussing logistics for Scott's upcoming inauguration, when his cellphone rang. It was Scott's executive assistant, Diane Moulton, asking him to come to the governor's office as soon as possible.

Thinking it was an innocuous matter, Swearingen waited 15 minutes to show up to Scott's office. He didn't expect it when Scott told him Bailey had resigned.

"Trust me, there was no one in this agency other than Commissioner Bailey more shocked than myself," Swearingen said. "There was nothing to indicate to me this was coming."

Within an hour, Scott's press office rushed out a news release that announced Swearingen's interim appointment, providing no explanation for Bailey's departure.

Bailey has accused Scott of lying for saying he had resigned when he had been coerced into it.

"I have the utmost respect for Commissioner Bailey," Swearingen said, noting that Bailey included him on his command staff. "He promoted me. He trusted me."

Asked to comment on Bailey's detailed charges of political meddling in FDLE by Scott's office and his campaign, Swearingen said: "I'm not really comfortable discussing (that). We've had some personal conversations that I would like to keep between myself and Commissioner Bailey."

Swearingen joined FDLE in 1984, fresh out of college, and began his career as a special agent in the Clearwater field office when Robert Dempsey ran the agency. An avid basketball player, his slight Southern drawl recalls his college years at Auburn University in Alabama.

He worked his way up the ranks, and became Scott's full-time bodyguard as the new governor took office in 2011 and later the leader of Scott's security detail, an assignment that required Scott and Swearingen spending lots of time on the road together.

But Swearingen said it's highly unprofessional for an FDLE agent to become "too chummy" with the governor or first lady they are assigned to protect.

"I don't socialize with the governor or first lady," he said. "We are there to do a job, and that's what we do."

Swearingen was invited to attend a small private dinner at the Governor's Mansion last month that included: the Scotts; Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee; Corrections Secretary Julie Jones; Tallahassee prosecutor Willie Meggs; and Pete Antonacci, Scott's former general counsel, who delivered the three-word ultimatum to Bailey to "retire or resign."

Swearingen said no state business was discussed at the dinner. Less than two weeks later, Meggs said he would not act on a citizen's complaint that the Sunshine Law was violated in Bailey's ouster.

"There was no state business discussed — nothing of any significance," Swearingen said. "A lot of funny stories were told. I had no idea some of the things Willie Meggs has seen and prosecuted."

In his first few weeks on the job, Swearingen has sent three emails to FDLE's 1,700 rank-and-file employees throughout the state, thanking them for their dedication and, on Friday, attaching a rebuttal to what he called inaccuracies in a news article.

"I don't worry about attacks on me," he said, "but I don't want the folks that work here worrying, 'Is something going to change here?' "

Describing his approach to his job, Swearingen recalled the words of his grandfather.

"He told me, 'Your integrity is not something that can be taken from you. You have to give that away,' " he said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.