Politics & Government

Gov. Rick Scott's ouster of FDLE commissioner followed months of tension

TALLAHASSEE -- A simmering behind-the-scenes battle involving allegations of political meddling by Gov. Rick Scott's office erupted publicly Tuesday as the ousted director of Florida's top law enforcement agency called Scott a liar for claiming he resigned voluntarily.

Former Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey said he was forced to quit without explanation Dec. 16 after eight years as commissioner and more than two decades with the agency.

For four weeks, Scott has refused to give any reason why he wanted Bailey removed as head of an independent agency that strives to stay above politics and is charged with investigating suspected criminal wrongdoing by public officials in Florida.

"He resigned," Scott said after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday. Pressed by reporters, Scott said: "I'll say it again.

Commissioner Bailey did a great job."

Bailey, 67, said Scott isn't telling the truth.

"I did not voluntarily do anything," Bailey said. "If he said I resigned voluntarily, that is a lie. If he said that, he's being totally untruthful."

Later, as Bailey's criticism of Scott ricocheted across social media, Scott's office issued a statement for the first time acknowledging Scott wanted Bailey out: "Like in business, Gov. Scott thinks it's good to frequently get new people into government positions of leadership."

The statement did not say why Scott targeted Bailey.

In the months before Bailey's resignation, tensions escalated over what Bailey and others at FDLE viewed as improper interference in agency operations by Scott's office and his re-election campaign team, headed by out-of-state operatives with little experience in working with FDLE.

Herald/Times interviews and public records reveal: Scott's campaign, run by his new chief of staff Melissa Sellers, asked Bailey to take part in a June conference call to discuss "the governor's platform for the next four years."

Bailey considered it wrong for him, as a law enforcement officer, to engage in partisan politics and emails show he refused. On Tuesday, Scott's chief spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, said: "Obviously, FDLE did the right thing."

Bailey complained to Scott's chief counsel, Pete Antonacci, he was receiving solicitations to donate money to Scott's re-election on his state computer. When he complained to Antonacci, Bailey said he was told: "Just delete it."

It's illegal in Florida to destroy public records. Scott's office said no state employees received email solicitations unless they gave an email address to the campaign, which Bailey said he didn't do.

In March 2014, the Republican Party, on Scott's behalf, tried to send FDLE a check for $90,000 to cover the costs of transporting Scott campaign workers in state vehicles to ensure that no state cars were used for campaign purposes. FDLE refused the money, saying it had no legal authority to do so and that it was inappropriate to accept money from a political party. The check was dated March 4, 2014, and was voided a week later, the Republican Party's campaign finance database shows. Scott's office said a new check for $90,151.50 was written to the state general revenue fund in April. "We properly reimbursed the state," Schutz said. "Everything was paid for properly."

FDLE agents in southwest Florida rejected requests by Scott's campaign that they transport Meghan Collins, a campaign staffer assigned to First Lady Ann Scott. The agency said it is responsible for transporting the governor and first lady, not campaign workers. Collins, now chief spokeswoman for the Department of Education, did not respond to a request for comment.

The governor and Cabinet on Tuesday chose as Bailey's permanent replacement Rick Swearingen, 55, a 30-year FDLE veteran who has headed the Capitol police since 2013 and for three years before oversaw the unit that protects the governor and his family. His salary will be $150,000 a year.

Swearingen told reporters hours after Bailey was told he was out of a job, he was called to Scott's office and told he would be interim FDLE commissioner as the governor's hand-picked candidate.

Swearingen said neither Scott nor any Cabinet member voiced displeasure about Bailey or the way FDLE was operating.

"Absolutely not," he said.

By law, the FDLE commissioner reports to the governor and all three elected Cabinet members: Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. FDLE was created as a Cabinet agency to prevent it from being under the control of any one politician.

None of the three Cabinet members questioned what happened to a high-ranking state law enforcement official, even though Bailey also reported to them. All three made glowing statements Tuesday about Bailey's record and repeated Scott's debunked claim Bailey resigned.

"My office was told Commissioner Bailey was resigning and was never told anything other than that," Bondi said.

Bailey said Antonacci arrived at his office on the morning of Dec. 16 and delivered a three-word ultimatum: "Retire or resign."

He said he was told by Antonacci to write a brief letter of resignation, pack his belongings and vacate his office by 5 p.m., a little more than a week before Christmas. Bailey said he was later told to be out by 3 p.m. as word of the move reached the press corps.

Bailey's two-paragraph letter made no mention of the word "resignation."

Antonacci, who's still a legal adviser to Scott, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sellers, 32, who has been on the job five weeks as Scott's chief of staff and is his most influential adviser, also declined to comment.

"I have nothing further to say on the record," Sellers said.

Sellers, Collins and Collins' husband, Frank, a deputy chief of staff to Scott, are all new to Florida and to state government. All three worked for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal before joining Scott's administration and at times are known to be referred to by FDLE agents as the "Louisiana Mafia."

Bailey's abrupt sacking after a long and unblemished career has dominated talk in the Capitol. For four weeks, sheriffs, law enforcement officials, lobbyists and state legislators have been asking why Bailey lost his job.

Bailey had more than 35 years of law enforcement experience, most of it at FDLE. He began his career as a state trooper in his native North Carolina. He's a graduate of the FBI National Academy and holds two degrees from Florida State, including a master's degree in public administration.

He became FDLE commissioner Dec. 5, 2006, by a unanimous vote of former Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet.

FDLE, established in 1967, has about 1,700 full-time employees and a budget of about $300 million. The agency is in charge of public safety, domestic security and criminal intelligence, and it provides security to the state Capitol complex and for the governor, his family and the state mansion grounds.

The agency is now investigating a series of suspicious inmate deaths in state prisons, has assisted in the search for human remains at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, and investigated the destruction of emails during Scott's transition to the governor's office in 2010.

-- Herald/Times staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Michael Van Sickler and Michael Auslen contributed to this report.