Atwater objectivity questioned after millions change hands

Herald/TimesTallahassee BureauJanuary 9, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- One member of the Florida Atlantic University presidential search committee that will decide whether Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater becomes a finalist used Atwater as a reference when she was appointed to the Florida Board of Governors in 2011.

Wendy Sartory Link, an attorney at the West Palm Beach law firm of Ackerman, Link & Sartory, listed Atwater as one of three references when she was appointed to the Board of Governors for the university system by Gov. Rick Scott. Her law firm has also won more than $7.5 million in contracts with the state-run insurance carrier, Citizens Property Insurance, whose management Atwater oversees.

Link will be among the 15 members of the FAU search committee that will interview the 10 remaining applicants for president of the university Thursday and Friday. The group will narrow the list to three finalists and the ultimate selection will be made by the university board of trustees at its meeting Jan. 17.

Link said she believes Scott did not consult with Atwater before he appointed her and his presence on her application will not interfere with her search-committee duties.

"My commitment to FAU and the Search Committee is to provide an objective assessment of the candidates before us, and I take that very seriously," she said in

a statement.

The university has hired a search firm for $90,000, plus an estimated $9,000 in expenses, to conduct a nationwide search to fill the vacancy left when Mary Jane Saunders resigned. After receiving 61 applications, the presidential search committee narrowed the list to 10, including eight academics as well as Atwater and former Sen. George LeMieux, both Republicans.

Link said she disclosed her relationship with Atwater to the FAU board chairman and the board's legal counsel as well as the chancellor of the State University System and its legal counsel and "all have assured me that there is no conflict of interest, and have encouraged me to continue my service on the FAU Search Committee."

The governor's spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, is "confident the FAU search committee will act in the best interest of FAU." A spokesman for FAU compared the relationship between Atwater and Link to two families "sending their kids to the same day care."

"We do not believe that a search-committee member (or, for that matter, a trustee) should recuse himself or herself from considering a presidential candidate simply because he or she might know that candidate personally," said FAU spokesman Joshua Glanzer.

Although Link is not a member of the FAU board of trustees, its conflict-of-interest policy says: "Trustees shall disclose and resolve potential conflicts of interest and ethical concerns."

In addition to listing Atwater as a character reference, Link's other references were Tom Grady, who formerly served as a state legislator, commissioner of the Florida Office of Financial Regulation. and interim chief of Citizens Property Insurance, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

Fresen said he knew Link because she had served on the Palm Beach State College board of trustees from 2007 to 2011 and she lobbied him for funding for the school and both also shared an interest in land-use law.

Grady, a lawyer who had worked with Link's firm, gave the company its first contract with Citizens when he served as its interim director of Citizens in 2012. The $1.5 million contract runs through July 2014 to coordinate litigation against the company from people disputing sinkhole claims.

In December, the Citizens Board awarded Link's law firm another $6.5 million contract to coordinate the ballooning number of lawsuits against the company for delaying and denying claims. Atwater did not have a direct role in any of the contracts but, as a member of the state Cabinet, he, the governor, and the attorney general provide oversight of the state-run agency.

Link, a Florida native who graduated from the University of North Carolina and Duke University law school, shares the governor's view the state should refrain from raising university tuition -- a position that is not shared by all university presidents.

"I don't think there's a direct correlation between the amount of tuition and the quality of education you get," she told the Herald/Times in a 2011 interview.

Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida, suggested the FAU search committee should review its policy regarding potential conflicts of interest before forging ahead with its interviews.

"Before the search committee makes a decision that could impact spending of taxpayer dollars, it should make its conflict-of-interest policy clear to the public," said Krassner.

"The committee could adopt the ethics requirements of the FAU trustees, the Board of Governors, or define its own rules," he said. "A best practice for any elected or appointed official would be to disclose all actual or potential conflicts of interest before a vote."

Efforts to reach Anthony Barbar, chairman of the FAU board and the search committee, were unsuccessful.

Steve Bousquet of the Tampa Bay Times contributed to this report.

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