Top state official faces little scrutiny from lawmakers in wake of unemployment website fiasco

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 18, 2014 

These past few months have been a rough stretch for Jesse Panuccio, the embattled executive director of Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity.

Since mid-October, Panuccio has had to explain to state lawmakers what went wrong with the launch of CONNECT, a $63 million website plagued with glitches that prevented thousands of Floridians from getting unemployment benefits on time.

But that didn’t stop last week’s preliminary confirmation of Panuccio by a Senate appropriations committee that not only overlooked the disaster, but rewrote some of the history surrounding it, as well.

By a 10-0 vote, the Senate’s appropriations subcommittee on transportation, tourism and economic development confirmed Panuccio, 33, to the $141,000 job overseeing 1,621 employees and an $872.7 million budget. He took the post 15 months ago after a stint as Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel. He has two more committees and a floor vote in the Senate before he’s fully confirmed.

If Wednesday is any indication, however, Panuccio will easily survive a crisis that required federal intervention to unite desperate Floridians with the money they were owed.

“I’m not just going to support you, I’m going to do everything I can in the process to make sure you get to the end,” said the committee chairman, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who will become Senate president later this year. “I think what helps me is when this issue happened with the website, unlike some other areas in the state and Washington that just pointed fingers . . . we took ownership of it and we fixed it. And we addressed it. And I think that that, in my opinion, is leadership.”

Gardiner can say what he wants, but facts should still matter in the Senate. In his justification for supporting Panuccio, they clearly don’t.

Let’s take his point that “when this issue happened . . . we took ownership of it and we fixed it.”

Despite reports from around the state that the website was failing as soon as it launched Oct. 15, Panuccio and other top DEO officials declared victory, email records show.

“Congratulations!” Panuccio told staff that fateful day. “We successfully launched CONNECT.”

Fast forward to Nov. 4, when Panuccio had his first opportunity to publicly explain to senators what went wrong. Did he own it, as Gardiner said? Absolutely not. Instead, he blamed the media for exaggerating.

“Some of the press stories about CONNECT have been incomplete and focused on a narrative that is more likely to grab readers than to accurately report facts,” Panuccio said then.

Not only had dozens of media outlets reported problems, hundreds of complaints were posted on state social media sites and lodged with elected officials. The DEO still has no estimate of how many were denied claims.

But federal labor statistics show that in the nine weeks after CONNECT’s launch, there was an average of 20,000 fewer weekly claims from the prior nine weeks. That 18 percent plunge was the sharpest drop in 15 years.

Even in December, when Panuccio at last publicly admitted that there were problems, he never “owned them.’’ Instead, he laid blame squarely at the vendor, Deloitte Consulting.

Gardiner’s swipe at those in Washington who “just pointed fingers’’ apparently refers to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Nelson, who was elected to the Florida Legislature in 1972, and has since served in the U.S. House, as state treasurer and in the U.S. Senate, has somewhat of a claim to Florida affairs.

In October, Nelson was the first public official (and still one of the few) to demand a federal investigation into why the website was failing claimants. Nelson persisted, and federal officials intervened in mid-January. After several meetings, they persuaded Panuccio to pay all claims that had been dragging on for more than a week, exactly what California didn’t hesitate to do in a similar situation.

Thanks to the prodding of Nelson and federal officials, thousands of Floridians got the money they needed for food, rent and bills.

Yet Gardiner credits Panuccio with “addressing the issue.” It was only in January than Panuccio concluded that things were serious enough that he needed 330 extra employees, at a cost of $165,000 a week. A week later, he hired another consultant.

Compare that 11-week reaction time to the much-maligned federal health insurance site, healthcare.gov. Launched on Oct. 1, a new technical team was working on it three weeks later, and had the site up and running by Nov. 30.

Perhaps most startling is Gardiner’s statement that CONNECT is now fixed. Not even Panuccio is saying that.

Major defects have been repaired. Calls to help centers and complaints to officials have dropped.

But CONNECT still requires those hundreds of additional employees to function, plus untold overtime costs for existing staffers.

And that second consultant Panuccio hired is still there, at a cost of more than $600,000.

Gardiner’s most galling omission in his revised DEO history is how officials have underplayed their incredible good luck.

Because Congress failed to renew federal long-term unemployment benefits, they ran out at the end of December, and 88,000 fewer Floridians were eligible for unemployment, significantly lightening the load on the hobbled CONNECT.

Yet in its public statements, the DEO continually credits CONNECT and management decisions for the decline in unprocessed claims.

Meanwhile, DEO hasn’t been able to release any numbers that show how CONNECT is performing.

That makes Gardiner’s statement that the system is fixed all the more extraordinary.

Asked whether he had learned anything, Panuccio told senators Wednesday that he would be more vigilant in testing complicated websites and systems.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, seemed more interested in Panuccio’s inner workings than in the unemployment debacle.

“How do you personally feel about how this has personally impacted you?” Lee asked Panuccio. “There’s no question this didn’t roll out to your satisfaction, the governor’s satisfaction, and to ours. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t anything any of us could have done. How do you feel personally about it?”

Though graciously acknowledging the plight of the unemployed, Panuccio replied in a way that suggests contrition is not part of his road to confirmation.

“I’ve learned a lot about leadership, about managing large organizations,” he said. “It was a hard few months, much harder for the people being affected by delayed claims than it was for any of us, but I also feel proud of the team for working really tirelessly and countless hours to get this thing working.”

Panuccio didn’t say what exactly he learned about leadership, nor did the committee ask.

Instead, he won bipartisan praise, raising questions about what role, if any, Democrats play in Tallahassee .

“The technological issues, I think, you’ve addressed that,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. “We’re on the right track. I will support you today because I think you’ve learned from your mistakes.“

Afterward, a smiling Panuccio shook hands with many of the members, like Lee, who supported his confirmation.

“I appreciate their vote and their support,” Panuccio said.

Given his record on CONNECT, his gratitude is not surprising.

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