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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Florida Cabinet should stand up to Gov. Rick Scott

Florida Gov. Rick Scott remains allergic to candor and openness, repeating robotic answers to questions about political meddling at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It’s up to Florida’s Cabinet members, below, to make sure the governor doesn’t exceed his constitutional authority.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott remains allergic to candor and openness, repeating robotic answers to questions about political meddling at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It’s up to Florida’s Cabinet members, below, to make sure the governor doesn’t exceed his constitutional authority.
Published Jan. 21, 2015

Gov. Rick Scott repeated his robotic responses Wednesday to questions about his political interference with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and that simply is not good enough. This governor remains allergic to candor and openness, and Floridians deserve straight answers about his meddling at the FDLE and his apparent attempt to circumvent the constitutional limits of his authority. The elected state Cabinet and the Legislature should each hold hearings and determine whether Scott has engaged in sloppy management, nasty politics or worse.

Scott narrowly won re-election in November, but that does not make him emperor. The Florida Constitution says the FDLE reports to the governor and Cabinet, and so do several other state agencies. It takes a vote of the governor and Cabinet to hire and fire their leaders. That shared power is especially important at the FDLE, because it ensures that no single powerful politician can manipulate the state's top law enforcement agency.

Yet Scott apparently unilaterally decided to fire FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey and misled Cabinet members about his intentions. Then his general counsel forced Bailey out by implying the Cabinet wanted new leadership. Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam followed along like sheep, praising Bailey, asking no questions and voting unanimously for his replacement. Only after Bailey said the governor lied by calling his abrupt departure voluntary did the Cabinet members perk up, plead ignorance and pronounce themselves dissatisfied.

The governor's deception is far from the only issue. Bailey recounted to the Times/Herald capital bureau serious allegations that should be fully explored in public. The former FDLE commissioner said Scott staff members improperly asked him to discuss the governor's political positions, use the FDLE to ferry campaign workers, and delete emails to his state computer that sought campaign contributions (which should be a public records violation). Bailey said he refused, and he was out.

But Bailey's most serious allegation is that Scott's former chief of staff pressured him to falsely name an Orange County court clerk the target of a criminal investigation after two prison inmates used forged court documents to escape in 2013. Bailey said he refused and was criticized by Scott's staff. The governor's office says this allegation is untrue, but the Cabinet and the Legislature should question Scott, Bailey and the governor's staff in a public setting.

Better late than never, Cabinet members are starting to assert themselves. Putnam was the first to express his unhappiness, and now Atwater and Bondi have called for a public discussion about the FDLE situation at the Feb. 5 meeting of the governor and Cabinet. Scott has doubled down, saying he also wants to replace three heads of agencies that report to the governor and Cabinet — including state Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty.

First, the Cabinet should demand answers from the governor and from Bailey about what happened at the FDLE. Second, they should insist that there be a public discussion about the reasons for replacing any agency leaders. Third, they should require that any decision to fire any of those agency heads be made by a formal vote and in public, as the Florida Constitution requires. Fourth, they should publicly agree on the qualities they are seeking in new agency leaders and establish a formal search process. Fifth, there should be a public evaluation of the finalists and a public discussion about whom to hire before a formal vote.

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Just like the governor, Bondi, Atwater and Putnam were elected statewide. Just like the governor, they hold independent offices and swore to uphold the Florida Constitution. Scott is testing the constitutional limits of the governor's office. It's up to Bondi, Atwater and Putnam to preserve their constitutional authority and ensure the governor does not exceed his.

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