A necessary exit for Steve MacNamara, the governor's chief of staff

Published May 13, 2012

STEVE Macnamara was right to submit his resignation Saturday as chief of staff for Florida Gov. Rick Scott. His heavy-handed management style and propensity for insider dealing had become a major distraction for a governor who campaigned as a government outsider. MacNamara helped the new governor increase transparency and improve his relationships in the Legislature. But his manipulations were finally too great to ignore.

MacNamara resigned just hours after Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported that MacNamara had used his state email account in October to inquire about a job opening for president at a Montana Catholic college. Email records show the following week MacNamara asked his staff to update his resume. The records prompted Trent Barrett of Clearwater to file a complaint Thursday with the Commission on Ethics.

MacNamara claimed his staff's assistance was strictly to update state personnel files. But it was the latest in a long line of situations where MacNamara's explanation didn't ease the perception that he was using his position to advance himself or his friends.

In the past week, the Times/Herald has reported that MacNamara intervened to give a $5.5 million no-bid contract to the business partner of a friend and overruled an agency head to approve travel for the state film commissioner — who he had apparently helped get the job after easing out the prior film commissioner.

Since MacNamara joined the governor's office in July, five agency heads Scott brought to Tallahassee have left, none more spectacularly than the well-regarded former prison chief from Indiana. Ed Buss clashed with MacNamara over a plan to privatize 30 state prisons, an issue Scott had not made one of his priorities but embraced after MacNamara joined his office. Among MacNamara's close friends: The lobbyist for Geo Group, one of the state's private prison operators.

Klas' reporting also raised questions about what role MacNamara may have played in regulators' decision in October to allow a parimutuel to stage rodeo-style barrel racing.

Lobbyist Marc Dunbar is a former colleague of MacNamara's who took classes from him at Florida State University. A month after he wrote MacNamara complaining about the Division of Parimutuel Wagering at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the division's chief was asked to resign. Milt Champion said DBPR Secretary Ken Lawson told him in September that Dunbar was close to MacNamara and the governor's office wanted his resignation. It was the same month the parimutuel in Gadsden County that counts Dunbar among its owners filed an application to stage rodeo-style barrel racing under its quarter horse racing permit — something Champion said he likely would not have approved.

In October, with Champion gone, the division granted the request over sharp objections from the quarter horse industry, which is now challenging the decision in administrative court.

As usual, MacNamara had an excuse and denied any suggestion of impropriety. He said, for example, Champion's resignation was sought because his wife worked for the Seminole Indians' Hard Rock Casino, a competitor to the parimutuels he regulated. But Scott campaigned as an outsider with a new approach to government. There was nothing new about the way his chief of staff dismissed critics and helped friends.