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  1. Florida Politics

For now, Jesse Panuccio is the highest ranking Floridian in Trump's administration

Jesse Panuccio, former executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, is acting associate attorney general of the United States, the third highest ranking official at the Department of Justice. [Associated Press (2015)]
Published Mar. 29, 2017

Most Florida political junkies assumed Attorney General Pam Bondi would wind up with a plum, high-profile job in the Trump administration, a reward for her early endorsement of the New York billionaire and part-time Floridian. Turns out, however, that the Floridian who so far has landed the most influential administration gig is someone who struggled to get confirmed by fellow Republicans in the Florida Senate.

Jesse Panuccio, Gov. Rick Scott's former general counsel and jobs chief, is acting associate attorney general of the United States, the third highest ranking official at the Department of Justice.

Quite a few Floridians have landed jobs in President Donald Trump's administration including former senior adviser to Gov. Scott Mary Anne Carter, now serving as a senior White House adviser to the National Endowment for the Arts, and former Hillsborough GOP Chairwoman Deborah Cox Roush, who is at the Department of Education's public affairs office.

RELATED COVERAGE: Pam Bondi appointed to Trump's drug commission

Several others are awaiting Senate confirmation or final approval by federal bureaucracies, including Caroline Wiles, the daughter of Trump's Florida campaign chief, consultant Susie Wiles.

I'm not counting Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross or Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, because both Palm Beach County residents made their careers elsewhere and have had little involvement in Florida government and politics.

So until Miami native and Florida International University Dean Alexander Acosta is confirmed as secretary of labor, Harvard-educated Panuccio has the biggest job — helping oversee virtually all non-criminal activities at the Justice Department.

"He has emerged as the most influential Floridian in the administration because of his political skills and experience in government, combined with an Ivy League pedigree and network that has given him tremendous credibility with the attorney general and top White House officials," Tallahassee lawyer Jason Gonzalez of the Shutts & Bowen firm said of Panuccio, with whom he co-chairs the annual Florida conference of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.

Panuccio, 36, resigned in late 2015 as head of Scott's signature agency, Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity, amid doubts that he would be confirmed by the Florida Senate. Critics complained that his agency's online system for filing unemployment claims was fraught with problems and imposed obstacles on Floridians qualified to receive benefits.

"You know, I frankly don't like your attitude. I think there's an arrogance in the way you present this that's a sense of entitlement, and I just think it's wrong," state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, scolded Panuccio in late 2015 after the agency head dismissed testimony from a union leader. "We're here to serve the people."

Litigator Chuck Cooper, who splits his time between Washington and Bonita Springs and early on was a favorite to be Trump's solicitor general, said he recommended Panuccio for the job to his friend U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"Florida's great loss is the Department of Justice's great gain," said Cooper, whose firm used to employ Panuccio, along with other Republican heavyweights like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Rachel Brand. She is awaiting confirmation to become associate attorney general, after which Panuccio would likely become principal deputy attorney general, the position held by Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch during the George W. Bush administration.

"He is enormously gifted young man, a truly terrific lawyer, and very politically savvy," Cooper said of Panuccio.

Florida Attorney General Bondi and Gov. Scott were the highest profile Trump supporters in Florida, and Bondi was widely expected to wind up in the administration. On Wednesday, Bondi's office announced that she had been named as a member of the president's commission aimed at fighting opioid abuse. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, however, was chosen to lead the commission, according to the Associated Press.

Bondi's office did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but the delay in announcing an appointment long presumed to be imminent has prompted speculation from allies of hers that she may have been too picky and demanding about jobs she would be willing to take.

The when-will-Bondi-move-to-Washington speculation is resurfacing this week with her visiting the White House again Monday and scheduled to lead a "Women's Empowerment Panel" at the White House on Wednesday. Bondi's panel is to include U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Administrator of the Small Business Administration Linda McMahon, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Seema Verma.

Among the other Floridians or people who worked on Trump's Florida campaign winding up in the administration:

• Jennifer Locetta, former Florida State Director, works in the White House personnel office.

• Matt Parker, Trump's Florida field coordinator went to the Small Business Administration, but has already moved on to Tennessee to run a statewide campaign.

• Helen Aguirre Ferré of Miami, who handled Hispanic media for the Republican National Committee, is special assistant and director of media affairs.

• Tim Page, a media coordinator for the campaign, is working in the Department of Agriculture, while another media coordinator, Dave Chiokadze, is expected to start soon in the Small Business Administration.

• Florida communications director Chad Tucker had been working with the transition team but is now with AT&T.

• Robin Bernstein, a founding member of Trump's Mar-A-Lago club, is expected to be named ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and fellow Palm Beacher Patrick Park ambassador to Austria. State Rep. Carlos Trujillo is also said to be in the mix for a Latin American ambassadorship.

• John Pughe, deputy state political director and South Florida strategist for Trump's campaign, is expected to be named soon to an administration position.

• Jenny Korn, an RNC staffer who focused on Florida and Hispanic and Puerto Rican voters, is now deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison.

"No different than in the successful Florida campaign effort, staffers and supporters are honored to join the Trump administration to make a contribution to the vision for our nation that Mr Trump has articulated," said Susie Wiles, whose 30-year-old daughter, Caroline Wiles had been director of scheduling for the president but resigned after failing to pass an intensive background check. Caroline is expected to emerge soon elsewhere in the administration.

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