Miami Herald Editorial: Lawmakers should fire overseer of state unemployment site

March 19, 2014 

There's this thing in real life called accountability. As in, "You botched it, now step up, take responsibility for your mistake and fix the problem."

But these days accountability is taking a back seat in Tallahassee. For that matter, we're not sure it's even along for the ride. Cronyism and revising history are definitely on board, however.

Jesse Panuccio, the acting executive director of Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity and Gov. Rick Scott's former general counsel, saw his confirmation to the job he's been doing for 15 months get preliminary approval from the state Senate's appropriations committee on transportation, tourism and economic development last week. And oh, what praise committee members heaped on the 33-year-old who oversees 1,621 employees and an $872.7 million budget.

"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," crooned the committee chairman, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. "I think what helps 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."

Wow. Such high praise for the man overseeing CONNECT, a $63-million website with so many problems after its launch on Oct. 15 that thousands of Floridians couldn't get much-needed unemployment benefits on time.

It took ages for Panuccio to acknowledge how serious the site's problems were, and then he didn't "own" them. He, instead, blamed the vendor hired to set up the site, Deloitte Consulting.

In explaining the problems to lawmakers last fall, he also blamed the media for exaggerating CONNECT's glitches, despite the fact that, beyond numerous press reports on the problems, hundreds of complaints by then had gone to elected representatives or been posted on state social-media sites. Yet he still tried to gloss over the site's glitches -- which still continue.

It wasn't until January that Panuccio finally recognized what a big problem he had and hired 330 extra employees, at a cost of $165,000 a week, and another consultant for $600,000 to deal with the faulty website and lagging claim payments. Contrast this to California, which experienced problems on a similar website. California paid the claims first, sparing its jobless residents more hardship, and then it knuckled down to fix the site.

And Panuccio didn't get around to hiring the extra workers until well after Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and federal officials persuaded Mr. Panuccio to pay all claims that had been dragging on. So, despite what Gardiner claims, it was federal authorities and Nelson, not Panuccio, who acted responsibly on behalf of unemployed Floridians. Panuccio's agency still hasn't released any data that can show how well, or not so well, CONNECT is working today.

That's not leadership. That's incompetence. Panuccio's confirmation has two more committees and a floor vote in the Senate. If confirmed, he will earn $141,000 a year.

In truth, it should never happen. He doesn't deserve it. Instead, Panuccio should find himself out of work and consigned to use the very website he so ineptly oversaw.

Now that's accountability.

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