Florida Gov. Rick Scott admitted for the first time Thursday that he botched the removal of a top state law enforcement official as he and the Cabinet swung into full damage control to avoid future controversy.
"While I wanted to bring in new leadership at FDLE as we transitioned to a second term in office, it is clear, in hindsight, that I could have handled it better," Scott said in a rare mea culpa in prepared remarks at a Cabinet meeting inside a horse pavilion on the state fairgrounds. "The buck stops here, and that means I take responsibility."
Scott has not disputed that his former lawyer, Pete Antonacci, ordered Gerald Bailey to resign as commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Dec. 16 with no public discussion or vote, even though the FDLE chief also reports to three elected Cabinet members. Bailey's ouster cleared the way for Scott to unilaterally install his choice, Rick Swearingen, at the helm of a powerful statewide police agency.
The Cabinet, rocked by criticism for not questioning Scott's behind-the-scenes plot, vowed to be more vigorous in managing nearly a dozen agency heads who report jointly to Scott and to one or more Cabinet members.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam cited a "breakdown" in the way the Cabinet works.
"Clearly, the process is flawed," said Attorney General Pam Bondi, describing Bailey as a "hero" who restored integrity to the FDLE after repeated controversies involving his predecessor.
The four Republicans Bailey reported to laid the groundwork for repairing the political wreckage caused by the Bailey firing, but amid allegations of secret decisionmaking, they took no votes during Thursday's meeting.
The result was a wonkish discussion of procedures for evaluating agency heads and a consensus that Scott and the Cabinet will set new performance benchmarks next month to evaluate Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, revenue director Marshall Stranburg, and banking regulator Drew Breakspear.
Scott, who was re-elected to a second term in November, says he wants all three replaced.
"If we do this the right way, every quarter they'll come in and they'll have objective measures clearly defined," Scott said. "No one should be surprised if they're meeting their goals or not."
Despite a Cabinet consensus on an improved evaluation system, troubling signs persist.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater called for a new vote to confirm Swearingen as the new FDLE chief because of "perceptions of favoritism" in his selection, but no one agreed with him. Swearingen will get a job review in June.
Putnam, who has said Scott's staff "misled" him on Bailey's ouster, called for a review of Bailey's allegation that he refused an order from Scott's former top aide, Adam Hollingsworth, to falsely name a county clerk as a target of a criminal investigation.
"It gives me great concern," said Putnam, who has discussed the incident with Bailey and said he believes Bailey's account. "It's the piece that most specifically should somehow be addressed."
No one else echoed Putnam's request.
Scott's office has generally denied most of Bailey's charges but has declined to discuss them in detail.
Pressed by reporters after the meeting, Scott would not elaborate and referred questions to FAQ statements on his state website.
"The facts are the facts and I've given you the facts," Scott said.
The group agreed that Bondi's office would guide her colleagues in training Cabinet staff members to comply with Florida's open meetings laws, including posting future minutes of public meetings of Cabinet members' aides.
The Florida Society of News Editors, the Associated Press and St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner filed a lawsuit Tuesday accusing Scott and Cabinet members of violating the Sunshine Law by setting in motion Bailey's ouster through private conversations between staff members.
Also Thursday, Scott's office rejected a request by the First Amendment Foundation that he appoint a special prosecutor to investigate alleged Sunshine Law violations. The foundation made the request of Bondi, who said only the governor has that authority.
A crowd of fair visitors, many attending their first Cabinet meeting, expressed confusion and disgust at the spectacle.
Michael Kersmarki, 57, of Tampa said he worked as a volunteer on Scott's re-election campaign and the treatment of Bailey was "wrong."
"This shouldn't be happening. We have a right to have a government that's open," said Kersmarki, a communications consultant. "We got four years left. I hope the next four years are better than this mess."
Elizabeth Smith, 60, a retired state Department of Insurance employee, said the talk among Scott and Cabinet members was too convoluted to follow.
"They would skip around and say, 'We'll talk about this later,' and the next thing you know, they're talking about it," Smith said.
Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs said Scott's remarks Thursday don't change his decision to not pursue the matter because nothing illegal took place.
"Whether he (Scott) could have handled it better or not, it's still not a violation of the Sunshine Law," Meggs said.
Meggs said a violation would have occurred if Cabinet staff members orchestrated votes to remove Bailey from office. But the Cabinet never voted on Bailey's removal, he said, so no law was violated.
"Bailey resigned. He was forced to resign, it turns out, but he resigned. There was never an issue to be voted on by the Cabinet to ask for his resignation," Meggs said.
Meggs confirmed he discussed the FDLE affair with Antonacci, a friend since the 1970s. He said he couldn't recall if the discussion was before he said he would not investigate the case.
"I don't know if I initiated the phone call or he did," Meggs said. "It wasn't a discussion where I asked (Antonacci) why he did it. It was more like a discussion of how it happened. The only thing I learned from it was that Gerald Bailey was a gentleman about the whole thing."
Times/Herald staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.