State Politics

Did Florida’s CFO break law by revealing sex harassment complaint? Police look at case.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who serves as the state fire marshal, speaks during a news conference about hurricane preparedness, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, at the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Training Facility in Miami.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who serves as the state fire marshal, speaks during a news conference about hurricane preparedness, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, at the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Training Facility in Miami. AP

State police are reviewing whether Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis broke state law and released a woman’s sexual harassment complaint for political purposes.

A top official in Patronis’ office told the woman’s attorney Tuesday that he was referring the allegations to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“Our office has made no findings on the matter,” Mike Shoaf, who serves as Patronis’ inspector general, wrote in a letter to Tallahassee attorney Tiffany Cruz. “To ensure your client’s complaint receives an independent and fair review, our office has forwarded the issues and concerns to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.”

The referral escalates an internal employee dispute into a criminal matter, indicating that state officials are taking seriously the allegation that Patronis — or someone on his staff — broke state law when a complaint against the state’s top banking regulator, Ronald Rubin, was published online two months ago.

That could mean first-degree misdemeanor charges against Patronis, one of the top four elected politicians in state government, or a member of his staff. It’s punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

It’s the second time in the last year that Patronis’ office publicized a sexual harassment case without the consent of the female complainant to pressure the state’s banking regulators to resign. Cruz has represented both complainants.

“It sounds like a similar story, right?” Cruz said Tuesday. “Patronis’ office is using this complaint to force an employment decision.”

Cruz asked for an investigation last week, writing that Patronis and his spokeswoman released a “poorly redacted” version of her client’s complaint hours after it was made.

Her client had alleged that she was forced to hide from Rubin, whom Patronis helped hire, after he made inappropriate comments to her earlier this year and invited her up to his downtown Tallahassee apartment to check out renovations being made there.

Meanwhile, Rubin has requested whistle-blower protection in the case.

Patronis sent a news release to the reporters announcing Rubin’s suspension, including a copy of the woman’s complaint hours after it was filed May 10.

Patronis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Tuesday. He has defended the decision to publish the woman’s complaint, saying it was vetted by department lawyers.

Ronald Rubin was suspended as commissioner of the Florida Office of Financial Regulation after an employee accused him of inappropriate behavior.

Rubin has said that the harassment case was a misunderstanding. He’s alleged in a lawsuit that Patronis was trying to push him out of his job after he wouldn’t hire a powerful lobbyist’s friend, and that he was using the woman’s complaint to do so.

The episode is reminiscent of last year when Patronis suddenly announced he wanted Rubin’s predecessor, Drew Breakspear, to resign, for vague reasons. Breakspear resisted.

After a monthlong standoff, Patronis’ office sent reporters copies of another woman’s sexual harassment case, with the explanation that Breakspear’s mishandling of the case was the real reason Patronis sought the resignation.

The 2017 incident involved a man and woman working in Breakspear’s office. While drinking after an out-of-town conference, the man grabbed the woman’s breast. The man said it was an accident that happened when he nearly fell out of his chair, but the woman felt otherwise.

Patronis’ office — not Breakspear’s — was the one that investigated the accusation. It was later ruled not to be sexual harassment.

Cruz said her first client was not happy with the way either Patronis or Breakspear handled it, and that the woman left the office as a result.

But she said her client was surprised and upset to learn later that Patronis’ office sent the case to reporters months after she left.

“She made her complaint and thought it would stay confidential, which it’s supposed to,” Cruz said. “And it did, until it was politically convenient for a politician to release it.”

Patronis’ office at first released a version of the report that did not redact the woman’s name. The report was complete and could legally be released, but it’s unclear whether not redacting the name was illegal.

Cruz said her client chose not to complain about it in the hopes that it would go away.

But she said she spoke to her client recently, and said that the woman was upset to learn that Patronis’ office had again released a sexual harassment complaint to pressure someone else to resign.

“She’s very upset that it is being used again,” Cruz said. “She knows about my other client’s issue. She’s seen the media [reports] on that.”

She added, “I don’t think it’s coincidence that it’s involving the same politician.”

Breakspear recently told the Herald/Times that he agreed that the harassment case was used by Patronis to pressure him to resign.

He said he suspects Patronis was upset with him because weeks earlier, he had refused to help someone who had recently written a $25,000 check to Patronis’ campaign.

“I got to the point of saying, ‘I’ve got better things to do with my life than work for a poor manager whose integrity I did not trust,’ ” Breakspear said, referring to Patronis. “I think the meddling should not happen.”