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  1. Florida Politics

Gov. Rick Scott's former top lawyer will run huge water agency

Pete Antonacci, who served as Scott's top lawyer and as an appointed state prosecutor, was hired Thursday to run the South Florida Water Management District. [Times Files]

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's go-to guy has yet another high-profile job.

Pete Antonacci, who served as Scott's top lawyer and as an appointed state prosecutor, was hired Thursday to run the South Florida Water Management District, which is responsible for water quality and flood control for more than a third of all Florida residents from Orlando to the Keys.

Antonacci, 67, will be the only director overseeing one of the state's five regional water districts with no background in science. He starts work next month at a salary of $165,000 a year.

"It appears that Antonacci's primary qualification is his close relationship with Governor Scott," said Eric Draper of Audubon Florida. "But it doesn't change the fact that the water management district is facing a budget crisis that will undermine Everglades restoration, water supply and flood protection."

Antonacci replaces Blake Guillory, whose resignation follows a tense summer in which the board flip-flopped on a tax cut, first holding the line on a small tax hike before backtracking, in line with Scott's opposition to a tax increase.

All nine board members who hired Antonacci are Scott appointees, but the governor distanced himself from their decision.

"I'm sure he'll do a good job there, but that was a decision by their board," Scott said. "It's their choice."

Antonacci, 67, is a Democrat-turned-Republican who gained prominence as a top aide to Bob Butterworth, a Democratic attorney general from 1986 to 2002.

"Pete loves public service," Butterworth said. "I'm happy for him."

Scott named Antonacci as interim Palm Beach County state attorney in 2012 and later as his general counsel, a job that thrust him into a major controversy.

Acting on Scott's behalf, Antonacci ordered Gerald Bailey, former commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to "retire or resign" last Dec. 13 so that Scott could appoint a handpicked successor, even though the FDLE chief also reports to three Cabinet members.

Scott and the Cabinet later settled a public records lawsuit by news outlets that cost taxpayers more than $300,000 in legal fees and costs. Antonacci has declined to discuss his role in Bailey's ouster.

Between his public jobs, Antonacci worked at a prominent law firm, GrayRobinson, where he lobbied for a private prison health care company, Corizon, which has faced criticism from legislators for the cost and quality of the care it provides inmates.

Antonacci is a blunt, quick-witted lawyer who has deftly worked both sides of the political spectrum and has been appointed to a series of influential boards that screen candidates for judgeships.

Between 1996 and 2011, he made nearly $16,000 in campaign contributions to politicians in both parties.

"He's not an ideologue. He's just a really smart guy," said EarthJustice attorney David Guest, who has fought the state on environmental issues for decades.

As a well-connected Tallahassee lawyer, Antonacci represents a break from a tradition in which scientists and engineers rose through the ranks to run agencies filled with fellow scientists.

The water management district has a budget of more than $750 million a year and 1,550 full-time employees.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.