September 30, 2015

Florida CFO Jeff Atwater reconsidering U.S. Senate race


Almost six months after Jeff Atwater unequivocally declared he would not be a candidate for the U.S. Senate, the state’s elected chief financial officer is once again considering jumping into the contest saying there is still a possibility he will run in 2016.

Atwater said friends and people he has deep respect for have been constantly asking him if he might be a candidate, despite his April declaration he would not run.

“Yea, I would say there is still a possibility of that,” Atwater, a Republican from Palm Beach County, said in an interview with the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau.

The GOP field for the U.S. Senate is crowded, but mostly with candidates who have never run for statewide office before. The field already includes U.S. Reps David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, and Ron Desantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, as well as Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox. U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson are the leading candidates running for the Democratic nomination. 

Early polls have shown voters unfamiliar with any of the GOP candidates running. While Atwater is far from a household name, he has run two statewide campaigns in 2010 and last year’s 2014 re-election.

Atwater was thought to be a front runner if he got in the race because of his elective experience. Prior to being chief financial officer he was a member of the Florida Legislature, where he rose to become Senate President in 2008. But Atwater stunned GOP insiders in April when he told the Times/Herald he would not run for the U.S. Senate.

"While I have certainly taken these words of support under consideration, I will not be a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016," Atwater later posted on Facebook.

But it was a different answer this week asked about running for the seat.

“We won’t rule that out,” Atwater said.

The U.S. Senate seat open in 2016 is currently held by Marco Rubio, who is not seeking re-election so he can run for president.

March 04, 2015

Cabinet performance reviews: It's really not a new idea

As the aides to Gov. Rick Scott and his colleagues on the Cabinet revived the debate today over crafting a new policy about how to evaluate the performance of agency heads who report to them in the wake of the governor’s botched firing of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, some history:

If they had asked their predecessors, they would have learned that the practice had been in place for years and, on occasion used by this governor and Cabinet. 

Records and transcripts of Cabinet meetings reviewed by the Herald/Times show that the governor and Cabinet had a record of requiring a “performance review” of officials who reported to them.

The practice continued for the first year Scott and the three Cabinet officials came to office but then waned. DOR Secretary Lisa Echeverri did not have one in 2012 and her replacement, Marshall Stranburg, has never had one.

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January 07, 2014

List of potential Atwater successors continues to grow

In Florida, there are few top tier elected positions available at the state level for ambitious pols. Until recently, the three Cabinet races locked up by incumbents promised to be snoozers this election year for all but the very top of the ticket -- the governor's race.

Then chief financial officer Jeff Atwater announced he's ready to ditch his $129,000 state job for one that makes nearly three times the salary: president of Florida Atlantic University. The search committee on Monday picked Atwater, and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux among 10 candidates to interview. If Atwater is named to the post, the governor could appoint a temporary replacement and open the door to politicians from both parties to scurry for the open seat.

Here's the latest line-up of who's considering the job should Atwater leave: 

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October 24, 2013

Deerfield Beach businessman entering race for CFO says he's qualified for the job

William D. Rankin, a 53-year-old Deerfield Beach businessman, U.S. Army veteran and “normal, middle-of-the-road kind of guy,” says he is prepared to take on Republican Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and his well-funded re-election effort.

The Democrat said, “I have the qualifications to be the CFO.” Those qualifications include his position as the former director of asset management for the Ohio State Treasury, responsible for the accountability of more than $120 billion public trust and public retirement funds.

Rankin was also a U.S. Army special agent for 11 years, specializing in investigations of white-collar crime and government contract fraud. Injured in the service, he was honorably discharged.

A Cincinnati native, the divorced father of two adult children has been living in Florida since 1999 when he became director of Florida’s 2000 Census operation. He previously served as an outreach director for the U.S. Congressional 2000 Census Oversight Board, and worked with the state’s Haitian and Cuban communities.

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August 16, 2013

More FL Democrat struggles: CFO candidate has past of bankruptcies


Political unknown Allie Braswell was already facing an uphill struggle in taking on state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who has a solid political team, a Midas touch for fundraising and good name ID (he got more votes in 2010 than anyone else on the Florida ballot: Marco Rubio, Adam Putnam, Pam Bondi or Rick Scott).

Here's another hurdle for Braswell: The Florida Times Union reports he filed for bankruptcy as many as three times.

It's not a disqualification, Democrats will tell you as they quickly point to the record Medicare fraud fine paid by the hospital company that Scott ran years ago.

But Scott overcame those challenges with gobs of his own personal money and a sharp group of message masters. It doesn't look like Braswell has either of those at his disposal. And it's tough to run for a finance-related job when your finances were a mess at one point.

Braswell's candidacy is another sign of the Florida Democratic Party's structural problems. It struggles to field big-name candidates of its own. Despite outnumbering Republicans by more than 514,209 registered active voters, Democrats control no statewide seats based in the state Capitol and only have one statewide elected official, Sen. Bill Nelson. They're also heavily in the minority in the Florida House and Senate.

The FDP has no bench.

Right now its best hope, according to polls, used to be a Republican: Gov. Charlie Crist, who might run for his old job as a Democrat. In that one respect, Crist has a similarity with Braswell, who also used to be a Republican.

Here's the Times Union on Braswell:

His most recent petition, filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Orlando in October 2008, shows he had $324,325 in assets and $509,155 in liabilities. The case was dismissed by Judge Arthur B. Briskman nearly 13 months after it was filed because Brawell defaulted on payments associated with a payment plan.

At the time of dismissal, he was delinquent on plan payments to the tune of $6,000. “Debtor failed to become current in payments and failed to file a response to the Trustee’s motion to dismiss … this case should be dismissed,” the judge wrote in his final order.

Because it was dismissed, Braswell had to reassume the debt. He would not say how much debt he is carrying today, information that will have to be made public on financial disclosure forms filed by all candidates.

“I used bankruptcy as way to responsibly pay my debt,” he said in an interview Friday.

August 12, 2013

Movers & Shakers

New chairman for Citizens Board of Governors

Chris Gardner, a veteran of the retail insurance brokerage business, has been named chairman of the Board of Governors for Citizens Property Insurance Florida CFO Jeff Atwater.

Gardner, a resident of Winter Park, has 20 years of experience in the retail insurance brokerage business with a specific focus in commercial property and casualty insurance. He has served as a member of the Citizens board since his appointment in July 2011.

“In his 20 years in the insurance industry, Chris has proved himself to be a person of high character and sound judgment who shares my high expectations for how a corporation such as Citizens should be managed,” Atwater said in a news release.

Gardner is the managing shareholder of Kuykendall Gardner, LLC, a Florida-based insurance broker doing business since 1953. Neither the firm collectively nor Gardner personally has any current business interests in Citizens, according to the release. He has been a past chairman of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and is a past vice chairman of the City of Orlando Municipal Planning Board.

Gardner succeeds Carlos Lacasa as chairman of the Citizen’s board.

Another change: Sen. President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has appointed Freddie Schinz to the Citizens Board of Governors.

Schinz has more than 40 years of experience as a statewide commercial builder. He replaces Carol Everhart.

Gaetz picks

Gaetz has appointed Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) to the Southern States Energy Board, Sen. John Legg (R-Lutz) to the Education Commission of the States, Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) to the Workforce Florida, Inc., Board of Directors, and Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) to the Florida High School Athletic Association Public Liaison Advisory Committee.

Flores, 36, is an attorney and CEO of Doral College. Legg, 38, is a long-time Pasco County educator and the Senate Education Committee Chair. Montford, 65, is the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Stargel, 47, is an investment property manager in Lakeland.

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May 29, 2013

CFO Jeff Atwater also raises questions about $52 million deal for Heritage Insurance

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has weighed in on Citizens Property Insurance’s $52 million deal with an upstart St. Petersburg firm, suggesting that the transfer was “not thoroughly vetted.”

Atwater joins several other top Florida officials in questioning Citizens over the deal, which benefits nine-month-old Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance. The proposal was unveiled and approved last week  in a quickly scheduled 3-2 vote by Citizens’ board. Two board members could not make it to the meeting and another abstained from voting, allowing the proposal to carry with support of only three of Citizens' eight board members. 

“Citizens must recognize that making significant financial decisions on behalf of Floridians deserves full and complete transparency,” Atwater said in a statement provided by a spokesperson.

Heritage, which donated $110,000 to Gov. Rick Scott’s reelection campaign in March, will receive up to $52 million from Citizens’ $6.4 billion surplus, part of a unique retroactive reinsurance deal. The company will take over as many as 60,000 policies from the state-run insurer.

The deal has sparked criticism from House Speaker Will Weatherford, Rep. Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey), Rep. Frank Artiles (R-Miami) and former state senator Dan Gelber (D-Miami Beach). Weatherford pledged to have his Regulatory Affairs chair conduct a thorough review of Citizens. Scott’s chief of staff called the board “tone-deaf” and the governor’s office said Scott did not influence the board to act on behalf of his political contributor. A board member appointed by Scott made the motion to approve the deal.

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April 16, 2013

Cat Fund bill survives two special interest cat fights, headed to House floor

A bill to shrink Florida’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund survived substantial debate and parallel cat fights between special interests Tuesday, clearing its final House committee. It now heads to the House floor. 

HB 1107 by Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, would reduce the state’s $17 billion reinsurance fund, while also exempting medical malpractice insurers from potential “assessments” levied by the fund. 

Both issues—shrinking the low-cost reinsurance fund and exempting medical malpractice—sparked opposing arguments among lawmakers and groups that have a financial interest in the outcome. 

Hager said he sponsored the bill because the Cat Fund may not be able to meet its obligations to pay claims for Citizens Property Insurance and other private insurance companies that buy its reinsurance. 

“This is the time for us to belly up to the bar,” he said. “We’ve made promises. Promises we know that we could not keep.”

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April 10, 2013

Shhh... Soaring insurance rates the unspoken theme in fast-moving Senate bill

Rate increases have been the unspoken undercurrent of a property insurance bill cruising through the Florida Senate.

As lawmakers have cast their votes on the quickly-moving and complex bill, few have discussed exactly how much rates would increase under the proposal. With little discussion of the bill’s rate impact, it has sailed through committee and could be debated on the floor on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Citizens President Barry Gilway gave the first glimpse of the actual rate impact and pointed out that it could be substantial. 

“There are 11 territories that would see a rate increase of over 60 percent,” he said

Here are some of the rate increases that will hit new Citizens customers next year if the bill passes in its current form. 

Part of Volusia County: 86.8 percent
Part of Lee County: 62 percent
Part of Broward County: 65.6 percent
Part of Hernando County: 73.3 percent
Part of Monroe County: 137.8 percent
Part of Palm Beach County: 60.1 percent

Other territories in Miami-Dade County and parts of Tampa Bay could also see annual insurance premiums increase by thousands of dollars. Sinkhole rates in places like Hernando County could nearly triple. 

Those numbers have been non-existent in the debate over SB 1770, which is reaching a floor vote after bipartisan support in three Senate committees. Some of the lawmakers voting for the bill represent districts where rate increases would hit hardest. Rates would go up mostly for new customers, but that includes people who get dropped by their insurance companies and forced into Citizens, and people who get dropped by Citizens and need to rejoin.

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March 27, 2013

Digital Domain CEO hits back at damning IG report, blames Scott-Crist politics

Digital Domain debacle, take two.

The former CEO of Digital Domain is hitting back with an alternative script after an Inspector General report slammed the process that helped the now-defunct Port St. Lucie film studio get $20 million in taxpayer grants. 

John Textor said the claim by Gov. Rick Scott and Enterprise Florida that the Digital Domain deal was some kind of widely discredited proposal that had been blacklisted by Enterprise Florida, only to be slipped into the budget later by aggressive lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist—is complete fiction.

In fact, Textor said, Enterprise Florida actually recommended that Florida taxpayers chip in about $11.4 million to help Digital Domain bring jobs to the state.

An email Textor provided to the Herald/Times shows that an Enterprise Florida representative wrote Textor on March 18, 2009, saying that the organization would “present to [the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development] relative to a one-time award of $6.1 million” and other awards for a “total potential FL economic incentive package” of $11.4 million. The email, not included in the IG report, said Digital Domain would be required to create 300 jobs. 

EFI never went through with a recommendation to OTTED (which is required for  economic incentives grants to be awarded), but Textor has a very different explanation for why that did not happen.

According to Enterprise Florida’s account, the organization refused to support funding because Digital Domain’s finances were “extremely weak” and its business model was suspect.  Textor has a different story, and questions Enterprise Florida’s credibility by pointing out that the organization believed Digital Domain’s business plan was strong enough to receive an $11.4 million incentives package. 

Textor believes that he and others are being thrown under the bus as a way for Gov. Rick Scott to attack the Crist administration, which was in charge when Digital Domain received funding by getting special language tacked onto the state's budget.

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