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Despite CONNECT, DEO's Panuccio on verge of confirmation

The man who presided over the troubled launch of Florida's $63 million CONNECT unemployment system  is just one step away from getting confirmed so he can keep his $141,000 job as the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee on Monday recommended the confirmation of Jesse Panuccio 11-1, the fourth and last committee the 33-year-old former general counsel for Gov. Rick Scott needed to clear.

Next up is a vote by the entire 40-member Senate.

“I think he’s a class act,” Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon said after his vote. “He’s convinced a lot of us of that.”

Panuccio tried but failed to get confirmed last year. If Senators deny him again, he loses the job for good.

Consequently or not, Panuccio has been campaigning hard for the job, lobbying senators and providing access to sympathetic media outlets.

And, like he did in his three previous committee stops, Panuccio tried to talk up his record of heading the agency that was created in 2011 to serve as Scott’s touchstone agency responsible for economic development, broad social services and community planning.

“When I appeared before the senate last year for confirmation, I pledged transparency, accountability and efficiency would be the watchwords of my tenure at DEO,” Panuccio told senators. “I also noted that the agency was still in its infancy and that I would endeavor to realize the vision of the 2011 legislation that created DEO.. a year later, I’m pleased to report on the progress we have made.”  

Yet, again, Panuccio didn’t take any responsibility, either for himself or on behalf of mistakes made by the DEO and glossed over missteps the agency has made along the way.

Asked if he had learned anything, Panuccio answered in a ramble: "It reinforces how critical and careful the design of these systems were and despite the agency’s best efforts over four years, and really this goes back all the way to 2006 (when Panuccio wasn’t there) when the studies started, this system was very carefully designed and rigorously tested for nine months, we had an expert vendor build the system, we had Ernst and Young the nation’s leading auditor come in and make sure  the design and build was appropriate for a system of this size and scope, and it just reinforces that you have to be extra careful.”

Got that? He’ll be extra careful next time.

That explanation didn’t fly with the senator who asked the question, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

“He never said that he’s ultimately responsible, that the buck stops with him,” Joyner said afterward when asked about her lone dissent. “I never got an answer to my questions, there was a lot of tap dancing. If he had just said, ‘I take responsibility,’ I might have voted yes. But he never did.”

It’s rare that senators flat out reject an appointment. It hasn’t happened since 2010 when the Senate rejected two of Gov. Charlie Crist’s appointments to the Public Service Commission, David Klement and Ben Stevens. A likelier scenario is senators never take it up, and the confirmation just dies.

But Lee said that’s not likely either because it’s an election year, where the Republican-controlled Legislature is trying to make Scott look good to voters. Confirming Panuccio is the only way to do that, he said.

“The publicity of what happened (with CONNECT) has really raised the issue’s profile,” Lee said. “And the governor has really made that agency an important part of his administration.”