November 01, 2018

Ex-Patronis staffer sues, saying she was fired after not donating to campaign

Patronis

A senior employee with the Department of Financial Services has sued her boss, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, alleging she was fired for not donating to his campaign or attending a fundraiser event for his reelection.

According to a complaint filed Monday, Christine Taul, a 32-year veteran of the department, received a phone call at work from a third party inviting her to a fundraiser being held for the CFO on Aug. 20. The caller told Taul, a registered Democrat, to "bring a check." 

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Tallahassee Wednesday. 

Taul was scheduled to leave Tallahassee for a vacation on the day of the fundraiser, but said she wouldn't attend anyway because of her differing political views. 

When she returned from her vacation on Aug. 27, she was told she would be terminated. Taul, who had been an administrator for the CFO's risk management program since 1994, resigned instead. In September, Taul's attorneys sent a letter to the CFO's office in demanding she be reinstated with full backpay. 

The department's general counsel, Chasity O'Steen, said the department did not know of any third party activity, and that attributing the phone to the CFO's office was an "erroneous assumption." O'Steen said Taul was terminated because she failed to show improvement after mandatory remedial trainings in April 2018. Taul was also responsible for an employee who lied about her hours on a timesheet. 

O'Steen said the department was within its rights to discipline Taul for her poor performance, even after counseling and remedial trainings. The trainings were held by an employee relations manager, and were meant to be a "refresher," according to emails obtained from the office. 

Taul's personnel file, however, shows she received a "commendable" overall rating in 2017. Her manager wrote that she is a "valued asset to the Division" and that her "experience and knowledge are often utilized in solving complicated issues." 

Patronis, a Panama City republican and former state representative, was appointed into the role in 2017 after Jeff Atwater resigned for a position at Florida Atlantic University. He is running against former state senator and Yahoo executive Democrat Jeremy Ring, of Broward County.

"The timing of this ridiculous accusation seems like a sad politically based attack," said Patronis' campaign spokeswoman Katie Strickland. 

Taul's attorney denied that the accusation was political.

"If this was a sleazy election tactic, then we wouldn't have tried to be reinstated without litigation," Ryan Andrews. "We wouldn't have asked Mr. Patronis to reinstate with no harm, no foul. "

 

October 11, 2018

Patronis talks wife's battle with cancer, Hurricane Michael's wrath on his hometown

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@samanthajgross

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis stopped by his hometown of Panama City Thursday after spending time in Tampa, where his wife Katie underwent breast cancer surgery at Moffit Cancer Center.

Katie Patronis was diagnosed a few weeks ago, but her diagnosis became public Thursday afternoon.

The couple met in 1998 when Katie's uncle, a friend of the Patronis family, introduced the two. Katie's mother worked at the Patronis family's historic restaurant, Captain Anderson's, and the young couple bumped into one another at local government events. The families also spent time together as friends, hanging out in Panama City and scuba diving.

"My wife is incredibly important to our successes," Patronis said, choking up. "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn’t for her."

The couple dated for six years and got married in 2004. They have two sons -- Theo, 10, and Johnny, 8. 

"We have been together for a long time," Katie Patronis told the Herald/Times two weeks ago. "He has a good heart."

Katie Patronis, a real estate agent, was twice appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the Gulf Coast College District Board of Trustees in Panama City.

Jimmy Patronis, who is currently in the third position Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to, is on the November ballot to keep his statewide seat. He was appointed as CFO after former CFO Jeff Atwater stepped down in 2017 for a job at Florida Atlantic University.

Patronis' hometown was essentially ground zero for Hurricane Michael's destruction. Images and newscasts from Panama City show flattened homes, overturned boats and blown-out windows. The Category 4 storm made landfall Wednesday, wreaking havoc on the Panhandle and Big Bend areas of the state. 

"You're not supposed to see your hometown where you grew up get wiped off the map," Patronis said Thursday during a brief visit to the state emergency operations center. "Now, I really have some empathy for what the folks in Miami-Dade County went through with Hurricane Andrew. It's abnormal to feel this way."

While the physical damage of his hometown is a priority for the CFO, he said he is also focused on finding the people preying on residents desperate for food and housing.

 

Patronis said he learned a lot from Hurricane Irma, which he once called "a baptism by fire." He said during natural disasters, people take advantage of the most vulnerable by getting between them and their insurance and trying to make a buck. 

"I'm being torn apart by my emotions, but I've got a real job to do," he said. 

October 02, 2018

Newest Obama endorsements highlight Gillum, snub downballot candidates

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@samanthajgross

Former President Barack Obama had Twitter abuzz Monday as he rolled out dozens of endorsements in key state and federal races nationwide. 

Obama endorsed Andrew Gillum in the high-profile governor's race, emphasizing the importance Democrats are 

In Florida, Obama also endorsed U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, congressional candidates Stephanie Murphy, Chris Hunter, Nancy Soderberg and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Florida Senate candidates Janet Cruz, Annette Taddeo and David Perez, and Florida House candidates Nick Duran, Fentrice Driskell and Javier Fernandez. 

Missing from the list? Democratic candidates for all three non-gubernatorial cabinet offices -- Nicole "Nikki" Fried for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Jeremy Ring for Chief Financial Officer and Sean Shaw for Attorney General. 

"The unfortunate reality is that our race likely isn't on his radar," said Anthony Pardal, a spokesman for the Jeremy Ring campaign.

Shaw's campaign said any Democratic campaign would love to have the president's endorsement, but they are hopeful Obama will make an announcement ahead of election day in November. 

Fried's campaign declined to comment. 

Kevin Donohoe, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party said it appears that Obama is focusing more on the gubernatorial and legislative seats, not the downballot statewide positions. 

He's right. In the latest round of endorsements, Obama only picked two state treasurers (Colorado and Ohio), one secretary of state (Nevada) and one attorney general (also Nevada).

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Lujan Ray told the Miami Herald Monday that he expects a third round or even a fourth round of endorsements from the former president.

“I know they are always strategic in their thinking with rolling out endorsements," he said then. 

Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for Obama's office, said Obama specifically focused on endorsing candidates in close races where his support would make a meaningful difference, in races with redistricting priorities and those who are alumni of Obama campaigns and adminstration. 

Hill said it's possible Obama will endorse additional individual candidates between now and Nov. 6.

 

September 10, 2018

CFO Patronis' war chest hits $5.1 million, tripling that of Democratic opponent

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@samanthajgross

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis has hit more than $5.1 million in contributions to his campaign for re-election, tripling those of his Democratic opponent, former state senator and Yahoo! executive Jeremy Ring. 

Between the $1.9 million donated to his campaign account and nearly $3.3 million from the political committee Treasure Florida, Patronis rises far above others vying for a cabinet position, but not quite topping Attorney General Ashley Moody's $5.7 million.

Patronis was appointed to his current role by Gov. Rick Scott, a longtime friend, after former CFO Jeff Atwater resigned in 2017.

Ring’s campaign account has pulled in just over $580,000, with an added $703,000 from the political committee Florida Action Fund.

The totals are as of the month of August, and don’t reflect spending from third parties or contributions outside of the candidates’ political committees or official campaign accounts.

Photo: Robert Cooper/AP

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.

August 15, 2016

Four people control who is disenfranchised in Florida; three say it's time for reform

Restrictions on felons voting is one of the two ways Florida legally disenfranchises voters.

One way, the write-in law, which allows a write-in candidate to close a primary to all voters, is intended to undercut the constitutional provision that allows all voters to vote in a primary election.

The other is the law that permanently requires felons who have completed their sentences to apply and petition for their voting rights to be restored. But unlike the write-in laws, which the Florida Legislature can revise to make less restrictive, the laws regulating ex-felons voting is controlled by the governor and Cabinet and the state Constitution. Any change in the rules requires the governor to be on the prevailing side.

In interviews with the Herald/Times, everyone but Gov. Rick Scott said they are open to changes in the system they installed five years ago.

“If someone does an analysis, we have been granting civil rights to those who were waiting who would have automatically had their rights restored [under the previous system] and it’s probably time for us to revisit,” said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

“Having had some time and experience on the Clemency Board, I’ve come to believe that there are opportunities for improvement,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was open to some reforms before an application may begin.

"I wouldn't mind reevaluating the time frame of how long we wait,'' she said. "I would reconsider reevaluating the time frame to three years." But she does not support automatic restoration for non-violent felons.

“Serving your time meant that you lost your rights,” she said. “If you’re going to have your rights restored, I want you to ask for them.”

Scott, however, said through a spokesperson he does not support any changes. 

Florida leads the nation in the number of felons who have served their time who are disenfranchised with an estimated 1.5 million Floridians barred from voting. According to the Sentencing Project, Florida holds nearly one-fourth of all disenfranchised former felons in the nation. Read more on that here. 

The practice is a vestige of post Civil War white supremacy and now disenfranchises more whites than blacks. There once was a time when more blacks were registered to vote in Florida than whites. Our story on the history of disenfranchising black voters here.



April 26, 2016

Here's why Florida's CFO won't accept Jeffrey Bragg as the new state insurance commissioner

@JeremySWallace

After the Florida Cabinet again deadlocked over who to make the new insurance commissioner, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said he is just not certain that the man Gov. Rick Scott is committed to for the job has the right background for the post.

Moments after Scott and Atwater, both Republicans, declared another impasse in picking a commissioner, Atwater told reporters that he doesn't know if Pinellas County resident Jeffrey Bragg has the required private sector experience or regulatory experience to even legally hold the position of Florida Insurance Commissioner.

"I don't know the answer to that," Atwater told reporters.

Bragg, a 67-year-old Republican who lives in Palm Harbor, ran the nation's terrorism risk insurance program from 2003 until his retirement in 2014. In the early 1980s, he worked under the Reagan Administration, serving in the Federal Emergency Management Agency where he was the administrator for the national flood insurance program. 

Between those appointments, Bragg worked in the private sector, including as a senior vice president for Zurich Risk Management from 2001 to 2003 and as executive vice president for IMSG in St. Petersburg from 1997 to 2000.

During a public interview with Bragg on Tuesday during the cabinet meeting, Atwater said he tried to probe him about his regulatory background to get answers as to whether Bragg really is qualified to regulate Florida's insurance market. 

"He wasn't regulating players offering products in the private sector market place or who the complied with his programs," Atwater said.

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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.

September 30, 2015

Florida CFO Jeff Atwater reconsidering U.S. Senate race

@JeremySWallace

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.

Continue reading "Cabinet performance reviews: It's really not a new idea" »