Editorial: Investigate Scott's abuse of power

Published Jan. 31, 2015

As the former chief executive of the nation's largest hospital chain, Rick Scott once refused to answer questions during a deposition by invoking his Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination 75 times. As governor, he similarly avoids straight answers to questions about his abuse of power by repeating the same automated responses. The three Cabinet members should seek more clarity from Scott this week about the Florida Department of Law Enforcement scandal, and there should be an independent investigation to determine whether the governor and his staff violated state law or the Florida Constitution.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam are finally finding their voices and acknowledging Scott exceeded his authority by forcing out Gerald Bailey as the head of FDLE, which reports to the governor and Cabinet. Putnam says he was misled, and Atwater and Bondi say they had no idea Bailey would be told by the governor's general counsel he had several hours to retire or resign last month. Bondi, who continues to act as the governor's chief apologist rather than the state's chief legal officer, blames the power play on Scott's staff rather than Scott. She is relying on intuition rather than information, and it seems unlikely that the governor's inexperienced chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, would act so abruptly to oust Bailey without her boss' explicit approval.

In fact, Scott also was moving behind the scenes to fire the state's insurance commissioner. Never mind that Kevin McCarty reports to the governor and Cabinet. Never mind that state law specifically requires the chief financial officer to agree to hire or fire the insurance commissioner. Scott was forced to confirm a published report that his office sought the resume of a state official from Louisiana. His name was suggested by a Tallahassee lobbyist and friend of Scott's, and three high-ranking Scott aides came from Louisiana. How convenient.

To their credit, the Cabinet members are not interested in replacing any more heads of agencies that report to the governor and Cabinet until there are job evaluations an open selection process. Scott also has suggested some positive changes, although his recommendation that agency heads could be dismissed annually without cause would further politicize government, create instability and discourage top-notch candidates from applying. The reason to have state agencies such as FDLE report to the governor and Cabinet is to provide them with some independence and insulation from political interference.

Beyond clarifying the lines of authority of the governor and Cabinet, Scott's interference at FDLE cries out for an outside investigation. Among the questions:

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Were open meeting laws violated in the way aides to the governor and Cabinet members exchanged information about Bailey? Leon State Attorney Willie Meggs has no interest, but he is too close to the situation to be objective.

Did Scott's office improperly pressure Bailey to try to accelerate a federal money laundering investigation involving a Miami businessman Scott wanted to appoint to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as Bailey recounts?

Did Scott's aides order Bailey to name an Orange County clerk as the target of a criminal investigation and objected when Bailey refused, as the former FDLE commissioner alleges?

Scott says the "attacks against me are absolutely untrue and they are ridiculous.'' Yet he will not address the specifics, and his administration's self-serving FAQ is incomplete at best. If Bailey's allegations are so off-base, the governor should welcome an independent investigation to clear his name.

First, Cabinet members should question Scott about his actions at Thursday's meeting in Tampa. They should put off any more firings of agency heads, establish a clear process for job evaluations and candidate searches and review state law and the Florida Constitution. The first lesson: It is not the governor and his Cabinet. It is the governor and Cabinet.