June 14, 2018

What is Scott and Cabinet's approach to questions at Department of Revenue? Not my problem

Florida Cabinet KeelerThe state agency charged with collecting taxes purged the top employees at the Division of Property Tax Oversight, left positions vacant for months, filled the positions with people close to the governor and refused to provide a reason.

Should the public have confidence in the tax agency?

The agency staff wants employees to avoid building a records trail and encouraged behavior that requires them to conduct business primarily face to face or by phone.

How is that transparent and accountable?

DOR requires each employee to sign a gag order prohibiting them from providing any information to the media.

Is that a violation of the employees' First Amendment rights?

DOR removes the visitor parking spaces at agency headquarters and replaces them with tow-away zones, reserved parking for executive staff.

How is that in the public interest?

Gov. Rick Scott and the three members of the Florida Cabinet, who oversee the Department of Revenue, had an answer to those questions Wednesday: not my problem.

"DOR is overseen by the governor and other members of the Florida Cabinet. The governor, like them, expects the department to follow all laws and act in an ethical and transparent manner,'' said McKinley Lewis, Scott spokesman, in an email response to a series of questions Wednesday.

The governor and Cabinet, all Republicans, asked no questions of DOR Executive Director Leon Biegalski Wednesday as he appeared before them and asked for approval of his agency performance review and three routine rules changes. It is the same treatment they have given Biegalski since he was appointed in April 2016, the hand-picked choice of the governor.

This key agency answers to the governor and Cabinet, but they don't ask many questions

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, hand-picked by Scott to replace former CFO Jeff Atwater, has never publicly contradicted Scott. Attorney General Pam Bondi has also not demonstrated an inclination to be independent of the governor. And Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has often sparred with the governor for the last seven years, mostly behind the scenes, has also now avoided any public conflict. He hopes to be on the November ballot with the governor who is running for U.S. Senate.

Since Beigalski last appeared before the Cabinet in March, he has ousted top employees and kept positions vacant for months to make room for Scott's staff. After the Herald/Times reported the shake up, one of the appointments from the governor's office, Thomas Adams, took a $5,000 pay cut and left to work for Patronis.

After the Wednesday Cabinet meeting, the Herald/Times asked Scott to explain why he had confidence in the agency.

"We do reviews of Leon. I can get you a copy of that record,'' he replied, before cutting off questions.

The Herald/Times then posed the following questions to the communications offices for Scott, Putnam, Bondi and  Patronis to get them to elaborate on their reasoning.

Bondi and Patronis did not respond. Lewis provided the above response and Putnam spokesperson Jennifer Meale said: " The executive director is charged with managing the department, and the governor and Cabinet will hold him accountable for its performance."

Here are the questions for which we did not get answers:

* How has the governor been assured that actions are being taken to ensure that there is proper training given to the remaining staff in the PTO section that reviews property appraiser and property tax budgets -- since they do not have anyone with slightly more than a year of experience?

* Please explain how it is not a violation of a state employee's First Amendment rights for DOR to prohibit them from being allowed to have a conversation on background to inform a journalist? 

* Please explain how it is acceptable that DOR is allowed to avoid the creation of public records trails? 

* What will you do if the agency has a misguided employee who is engaged in illegal or unethical conduct at work and, because the agency discourages creating a paper trail of controversial issues, the practice makes it difficult to apprehend and find evidence against them? 

* What deterrence is there to inappropriate behavior if an agency requires employees NOT to rely on emails, has prohibited them from keeping substantive meetings off the calendar, and encouraged behavior that requires them to conduct business primarily face to face or by phone?

* Please explain why it is acceptable that DOR removes the visitor parking spaces at agency headquarters and replaces them with tow-away zones reserved parking for executive staff?

June 12, 2018

Remember when Cabinet meetings used to focus on agency oversight?

Florida Cabinet KeelerThe state agency in charge of regulating taxation in Florida has four equal bosses — Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected members of the Cabinet — but in the past two years, in public meetings and correspondence, they have asked few questions and have given the agency scant public scrutiny.

The agency's director, Leon Biegalski, was the governor's choice to lead the Department of Revenue when he was elevated from deputy secretary at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation in April 2016. Since then, the governor has canceled DOR's regular appearance in 9 of 19 before the Cabinet meetings.

When Biegalski appears before the Cabinet on Wednesday, it will be the first time this year. Will they ask any questions?

Judging from the transcripts of the previous meetings, that's not likely. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam asked only two questions in Biegalski's 10 appearance before them — and both came from Putnam. Story here. 

Until Scott's tenure, the Florida Cabinet had a tradition of meeting every other week. 

Florida, unlike most other states, has a unique power-sharing relationship between its governor and the Cabinet members. They share oversight and hiring authority of the directors of the departments of revenue, law enforcement, highway safety, the division of bond finance and the state board of administration.But the shared role also underscores the structural weakness of Florida's governor in controlling the shared agencies and Scott has ratcheted down the amount of substantial dialogue that takes place during Cabinet meetings.

In the last seven years, Cabinet sessions have been more ceremonial and less substantive. More time is devoted to award ceremonies than under previous governors, and a regular feature is Bondi’s promotion of offering dogs for adoption.

Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, sets the calendar and has convened only three Cabinet meetings this year. He scheduled eight meetings for the entire year, the fewest in recent memory, and canceled the meeting in May.

When the Cabinet had both Democrats and Republicans on it, there were more questions of agency heads in the public forum than there have been under Scott.

At a Nov. 20, 2008, Cabinet meeting, as former Revenue Director Lisa Echeverri Vickers presented her legislative budget request and annual performance report, former CFO Alex Sink grilled her about enforcement of tax revenue collection. Vickers acknowledged that she is asking for more auditors to help them collect the unpaid taxes.

Sink, a former banker and a Democrat, then asked about tax collections on short sales, a policy based on the rule because the Legislature failed to pass a statute, and the agency's application of "a glitch in the depreciation laws" that had left many businesses vulnerable.

The discussion provided an opportunity for the public to hear the agency's response to handling two important issues in an open forum.

Under Gov. Jeb Bush, former Revenue Director admitted during his annual performance review on Sept. 21, 2004, that the measures related to review of property appraisers "were fairly easy to achieve."

"You're an honest man, Zingale,'' Bush replied.

"Well, we want to do better than that,'' Zingale responded.

May 31, 2017

Jeremy Ring launches 2018 bid for Florida CFO

IMG_Jeremy_Ring__D-32nd__2_1_5B93IA5N_L249637107via @adamsmithtimes

Promising to protect Florida’s public retirement system and to focus on creating an innovation economy, former Broward County Democratic Sen. Jeremy Ring has jumped in the 2018 race for state chief financial officer.

As a former lawmaker, businessman, investor and one of the founding members of Yahoo, Ring, 46, said he is uniquely qualified for the job about to be vacated by Republican Jeff Atwater, who is resigning this summer. Atwater’s term ends in 2018, creating a rare open seat in that election for a statewide office that’s viewed as a stepping stone to the governor’s mansion.

“I understand the business aspect I’m sure as well as anybody that can run for that seat,” said Ring, who filed papers to begin raising money and is the first major Democrat in that race. No other prominent Democratic names are circulating for the CFO position.

Republicans could wind up without a competitive primary, too. Because Atwater is stepping 18 months before his second and final term ends, Gov. Rick Scott will appoint a replacement who can be a de-facto incumbent running for election in 2018.

Among the leading Republican contenders are developer and former legislator Pat Neal, Sarasota GOP chairman and state Rep. Joe Gruters, and state Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa.

The CFO is part of the Florida Cabinet along with the attorney general and agriculture commissioner. It was created nearly two decades ago after the Constitution Revision Commission asked voters to merge the Department of Insurance, Treasury, State Fire Marshal and the Department of Banking and Finance into the Department of Financial Services.

Ring, of Parkland, said a top priority as CFO would be doing all he can to promote a stronger economy in Florida by pushing for more venture capital, more business ties with Central and South America, and more engineers in the state.

Politicians constantly talk about creating jobs, Ring said, “but that rings hollow. They’re talking about jobs; I’m talking about: How do we make an economy? They’re not focused on how they create the next Yahoo.com, the next Amazon.com.”

As a down-ballot candidate, Ring’s success depends in large part on what happens with the 2018 race for governor, as well as with President Donald Trump, Ring acknowledged. He said he will focus on what he can control.

Ring — known as a moderate Democrat while in the Florida Senate — opened Yahoo’s East Coast office out of his apartment in New York. He reported his net worth as $12.6 million, as of December 2015.

He is capable of spending millions of his own money but said that’s not the plan. 

“I’m going to hold my powder, and if I need to put money in at the end, I’ll do that,” Ring said.

Herald/Times staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed.

May 23, 2017

New DEP secretary, Noah Valenstein, says there's no conflict in political side businesses

Noah Valenstein@MaryEllenKlas

When Noah Valenstein, the newly appointed head of the Department of Environmental Protection, was applying in April to be the state's top environmental regulator, he left one thing off the application: Companies he started and his wife runs have been paid nearly $1 million by politicians and lobbying groups, many of whom sought to influence the administration’s policy or advance the governor’s political fortunes.

Valenstein, the current executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, was appointed DEP secretary Tuesday by the governor and Cabinet. He was hired by Scott in December 2012 as the governor’s policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment and worked in that position until he left for the water management district — its board is appointed by Scott — in October 2015. He took a three-month leave of absence in 2014 to advise Scott’s re-election campaign.

Before he joined the governor’s office, Valenstein was director of legislative affairs for the non-profit Everglades Foundation from August 2011 until December 2012.

But while Valenstein was holding each of these policy jobs, his wife was also operating two political consulting and polling companies that Valenstein started: Campaign Facts, LLC, and Voter Opinions, LLC. Each catered exclusively to Republican candidates, advocacy groups and political committees.

In a statement to the Herald/Times, Valenstein said he has removed himself from the businesses, but he would not explain how he distances himself from the special interests that contribute heavily to the party, candidates and political committees that hire the companies.

“When I began my job as Policy Coordinator at the Governor’s Office in 2012, I immediately removed myself from all aspects of these businesses,” Valenstein’s statement said. “As Secretary of DEP, I will continue to remain independent of these matters, and I will take every precaution to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.” Read more here. 

March 08, 2017

Bondi, Putnam, Atwater say they didn't seek out gun exemption. Senator says one of them did.

IMG_2089

@ByKristenMClark

Three of Florida’s four highest-ranking elected officials — and potentially the lieutenant governor and the state’s 160 lawmakers, too — could be able to carry guns almost anywhere in the state under a special carve-out in Florida law being considered by the Legislature.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube, who filed SB 646, said one of the three members of the Florida Cabinet “approached” him about proposing the exemption, which would let the Cabinet members carry concealed anywhere in Florida where federal law doesn’t prohibit guns, so long as they have a concealed-weapons permit.

That means — unlike most of the rest of the state’s 1.7 million concealed-weapons permit-holders — those statewide elected officials could be armed in the state’s 15 “gun-free zones,” such as in public schools, airport passenger terminals, police stations, government meetings, athletic events and bars.

RELATED: "These are gun law changes Florida lawmakers could take up in 2017"

Steube would not say which Cabinet member — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater or Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — wanted the law changed for their benefit. Each of those offices is elected by voters statewide; Gov. Rick Scott oversees Cabinet meetings but is not himself a member of the Cabinet.

“I had a member that approached me, and they don’t have FDLE or trooper security full-time,” Steube told reporters Tuesday, referring to the security provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Highway Patrol.

However, spokespeople for Bondi and Atwater, and Putnam himself explicitly told the Herald/Times that they had not asked for the provision or were involved with Steube’s bill.

Read more here.

Photo credit: From left: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi sit with Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera and Gov. Rick Scott during the opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Tuesday, March 7. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

February 10, 2017

Florida CFO Jeff Atwater resigning for 'expanded' CFO role at FAU

435086653_17790853_8col

@ByKristenMClark @MichaelAuslen @MaryEllenKlas

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater announced Friday he’s resigning from his Cabinet position to return to Palm Beach County and take a job as the CFO of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Atwater, who is from North Palm Beach, will be the university’s vice president of strategic initiatives and CFO — where he’ll “lead strategic initiatives and economic development opportunities for FAU as well as manage the university’s finances and budget.”

FAU’s previous CFO, Dorothy Russell, retired on Jan. 31.

Atwater was elected Florida’s CFO in 2010 and won re-election in 2014. He cannot seek a third term but still had about 23 months left in office.

Atwater’s office said there is no designated date yet for when he will officially resign, but he plans to leave after the 2017 legislative session ends — sometime after May 5.

“I am honored to join FAU in such a significant capacity,” Atwater said in a statement from his state office. “While I would have preferred to embrace this opportunity at a later date, the timing of crucial university initiatives warranted an accelerated transition.”

Atwater added in a statement from FAU: “I cannot think of a better place to begin the next phase of my career.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: AP

September 20, 2016

Will the governor and Cabinet hold FDLE accountable for investigating inmate deaths?

Prison deathsSix years after 27-year-old prison inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo died at Franklin Correctional Institution  after being gassed by corrections officers, an investigation has still not been complete and witnesses to the incident, who allege he was tortured and beaten by corrections officers, have still not been interviewed, according to a 33-page federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday.

On Tuesday, the head of the agency charged with investigating the state's role in the death, Rick Swearingen, faces his six-month performance review before the governor and Cabinet today. The governor and Cabinet jointly are responsible for oversight of FDLE.

On Monday, the Herald/Times asked if the governor and Cabinet believed FDLE was sufficiently following up  on the abuse-related deaths at the Department of Corrections, as the agency had told legislators it would do. For the past three years, the Miami Herald has chronicled or revealed details about many of the deaths.

The question was not about the pending investigation but how the governor and members of the Cabinet is holding FDLE accountable regarding its performance about an inmate death nearly six years ago and other deaths the agency is charged with reviewing. 

Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater responded. No one chose to answer the question, or explain why they didn't want to answer it. We did not receive a response from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Here is what we asked:

"We are writing today about a federal lawsuit being filed in connection with the death of inmate Randall Jordan Aparo in 2010. We understand the investigation was re-opened by FDLE, however, many of the witnesses in the case and others have not been interviewed, according to the lawsuit. 

"As you prepare the performance review of FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen on Tuesday, could the governor provide us with an answer to this question:

"Have you have been assured that Commissioner Swearingen and his staff are sufficiently following up on the abuse-related deaths at the Department of Corrections? If you are confident these investigations are underway, please explain how you reached that conclusion."

Here's how the governor's office answered the question at 9:47 p.m.

"Commissioner Swearingen has done a great job in his leadership role at FDLE. We look forward to his performance review tomorrow,'' said Lauren Schenone, the governor's press secretary. "Florida is now at a 45-year crime low because of the hard work of Florida’s law enforcement officers, and Commissioner Swearingen has dedicated his career to making sure Florida is the safest state in the nation.”

Here is how the office of CFO Atwater responded: "Our office has not had specific conversations about inmate investigations," said Ashley Carr, spokeswoman for Atwater.

Here is how Bondi's office responded: "It would not be appropriate to comment on a pending investigation,'' said Kylie Mason, Bondi press secretary. "Furthermore, any discussion relating to FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen's performance review must be addressed in the open at the public Cabinet meeting."

February 04, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Legislative committees continue meeting in Tallahassee, while the state's top officials go to the fair. Here's what we're watching:

* They won't have an official cabinet meeting, but Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi will still be at the Florida State Fair in Tampa to help kick off the festivities. The governor will host a luncheon there at noon.

* At 9 a.m., the House Judiciary Committee will again take up the proposed "Pastor Protection Act," which allows clergy to turn away gay couples seeking to marry. The committee's vote was postponed last week.

* The House State Affairs Committee could vote to send to the House floor a proposal that changes the legal language of Florida's absentee voting to "vote-by-mail." That panel also meets at 9 a.m.

* The Senate Transportation Committee, also gathering at 9 a.m., will give a first hearing to a bill by Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, and Anitere Flores of Miami, which aims to outlaw the use of red-light camera devices in Florida.

* A bill dealing with cremation fees that counties charge is set for its final committee hearing in the House. The Regulatory Affairs Committee meets at 1 p.m.

January 21, 2016

University presidents aim to meet governor's call for post-grad job placement

@ByKristenMClark

Presidents and administrators from Florida’s 12 public universities and one private one presented their ideas Thursday to Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on how they plan to meet Scott's call to increase job placement of graduates in the universities' most popular programs.

The most common ideas proposed include offering career counseling services as soon as freshmen enroll and continuing that effort during the students' time on campus through dedicated advisers, internship placement programs and job-skill training activities.

Some of the more unique solutions mentioned range from free passports for Florida A&M University students in Tallahassee who study abroad to prepare themselves for a global workforce, to a freshman-year tuition rebate for students at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, who use campus career services, stay enrolled for four years and secure a job within six months of graduation.

FGCU president Wilson Bradshaw told the governor and cabinet that he expects that initiative will cost $1.5 million, which the university plans to fund through private donors.

"This will save them (the students) money and provide them with some much-needed start-up funds as they start on the path to a successful career," he said.

Each of the university presidents expressed emphatic support for Scott's "Ready, Set, Work" challenge, which he issued in December. He wants 100 percent of the students graduating from each university's two most popular programs to secure jobs within one year.

Continue reading "University presidents aim to meet governor's call for post-grad job placement" »

January 08, 2016

Gov. Scott wants university presidents to meet with Cabinet

@ByKristenMClark

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has invited the presidents of Florida's 12 public universities to the next Florida Cabinet meeting, so that they can present their ideas on how to meet a charge he recently issued.

Starting in November, Scott rolled out "Ready, Set, Work" challenges to the state's 28 community colleges and 48 technical colleges, as well as the public universities, encouraging them all to improve post-graduation employment rates for their students.

He wants the universities to ensure 100 percent of the students graduating from each institution's two most popular degree programs land full-time jobs within one year.

Most every university and college president accepted his challenges, but the catch is that they're on their own to fulfill it. Scott is not offering any money or other resources to assist the institutions in reaching their goals.

Scott wants to hear what the university presidents have come up with during the Jan. 21 meeting in Tallahassee.

It's unknown whether he plans to solicit similar presentations from the state and technical college presidents as well.