The husband of Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli's chief aide was handed the top legal job at the state education department last week.
He filled a vacancy created five months ago by the same aide -- House Chief of Staff Kathy Mears -- when she hired away the education department’s lawyer.
DOE officials won’t say if the $120,000 general counsel job that went to Matthew Mears on Jan. 20 was advertised or if there were other candidates. Mears and House officials said they didn't advertise the general counsel position that was awarded to Matt Carson from the DOE, leaving the vacancy filled by Mears’ husband. But they did say it was a formal process in which one other attorney, Stuart Williams, was interviewed. Two other attorneys were asked if they were interested in interviewing, according to the House, but they declined.
Mears, who said she only learned about her husband applying for the DOE job in December, said she didn't know at the time she hired Carson that her husband would eventually apply for his old job.
"I had no idea Matthew would be interested in a job at the Department of Education or that he would apply for the job four months later," Mears said in an email Tuesday. In an emailed statements to the Times/Herald, Crisafulli said that he did not know that Mears' husband would later apply for Carson's old job until December.
"Kathy told me that her husband was offered the job at the DOE in December, prior to him accepting the position," Crisafulli said.
But to outsiders and ethical experts, the role Kathy Mears played in ultimately creating an opportunity for her husband raises questions about how lucrative state jobs are awarded.
“This doesn’t seem open and transparent,” said Carla Miller, president of City Ethics, a Jacksonville non-profit that provides governments with advice. “You don’t want it to look like you have a tight little circle and that you’re choosing from an in-group. You can do that with a corporation. But people expect their government to be fair.”
The chronology puts Kathy Mears at the center of the hiring process for two key legal positions at powerful state governmental entities, underscoring the power she holds in state government. At 44, Mears has a legislative resume that dwarfs the experience of Crisafulli and his predecessor, Will Weatherford. Since the 1990s, she’s served as a trusted advisor to a number of high ranking Republicans: former House Speaker Daniel Webster; former Senate presidents Tom Lee and Kenneth Pruitt; and Gov. Charlie Crist.
She makes $152,000 as Crisafulli's chief of staff. She hired Carson for a position that oversees a chamber that helps draft policy and the $19 billion state K-12 education budget. Meanwhile Matthew Mears, who quit his job at Holland & Knight to work for DOE, is now chief counsel at a state agency that lobbies the House.
It’s a unique situation that isn’t apparently covered by state law. Agencies are prohibited from allowing relatives to hire each other, but Kathy Mears doesn’t work for the DOE. Nor did she hire her husband.
She did start the chain of events on Aug. 6 by hiring Carson as the House’s new general counsel, paying him $121,000, an $11,000 increase in what he was earning as the DOE’s general counsel.
Having served as the DOE’s general counsel since Feb. 11, 2013, Carson gave no reason for his departure in a resignation letter to Education Commissioner Pam Stewart dated Aug. 5.
"As you know, today will be my last day as General Counsel for the Department of Education," Carson wrote. "I have enjoyed working with you, [Chief of Staff] Kathy [Hebda], and the rest of your staff, and am grateful to you for this opportunity."
The Department of Education declined to say if Carson's departure was related to Mears' hiring on Jan. 20. The department also declined to say if the job vacancy had been posted, if a search was conducted, and how many other candidates had been interviewed for the position.
"Matt Carson was not forced to resign," Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Collins said. "In fact, the commissioner [of Education Pam Stewart] wanted him to stay. He accepted a job with the House, and his reason... was that he thought it was the best thing for his family and his career. She commended him. She was confident that he would do a good job at the House. He did a good job at DOE, and we're confident in our new general counsel."
Collins declined to provide any details on Mears' hiring.
Mears said she hired Carson because he came highly recommended by the previous general counsel, Daniel Nordby.
Nordby, who left to join the private law firm Shutts & Bowen, said he did recommend Carson to Mears.
“We were in law school together at the University of Florida,” Nordby said. “I’ve known him in legal practice here and we both worked at the Department of Education. I talked to a few people who I thought would be interested and Matthew Carson was one of the names I recommended.”
An email from Crisafulli spokesman Michael Williams stated that when Nordby announced he was leaving his job on Tuesday, an announcement was made to the House staff directors and senior administrative staff with a request for assistance with potential candidates for his replacement. Mears said she called attorneys Rick Figlio and Andy Bardos and asked them if they would like to be interviewed. They declined.
After Mears interviewed Carson and Stuart Williams, Crisafulli let Mears decide who to hire, according to Williams' email.
Crisafulli and Mears said Carson was not hired to make room for Matthew Mears.