TALLAHASSEE - Summer is supposed to be a sleepy time in the Sunshine State capital.
But partway through the sticky season, the doldrums have yet to descend. Instead, Tallahassee is one hot mess.
A scandal involving a financial regulator has rocked the Florida Cabinet. Elections lawsuits are clogging the courts. And Gov. Ron DeSantis is rattling sabers over a ruling that could revolutionize the state’s medical-marijuana industry.
One sizzling chapter has chilled, at least for now.
What had become an almost daily stream of sniping between Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and the state’s former top financial regulator, Ronald Rubin, may be on hiatus. Patronis’ crusade to give Rubin the boot came to a successful conclusion on Thursday.
But lawsuits about Florida’s elections system continue to percolate in a federal courthouse just down the street from the Capitol. That includes challenges to a controversial new law that would carry out a constitutional amendment restoring felons’ voting rights.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ administration this week asked a state appellate court to revisit a decision that Florida officials argue injected “confusion and uncertainty” into the medical-marijuana industry. Lawyers for the state said the decision “is of exceptional importance because it implicates whether the entire regulatory framework currently in place for the licensing of medical marijuana treatment centers should be overturned.”
RON, WE HARDLY KNEW YE
Less than six months after Patronis pushed DeSantis and the Cabinet to hire Rubin as commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, the regulator was bid adieu after a probe stemming from a sexual harassment complaint filed by an employee.
But Thursday’s action isn’t expected to end the public skirmishing between Rubin and Patronis, whose handling of the harassment complaint has also led to an investigation.
Rubin was hired early this year and served 57 days as commissioner before being suspended May 10 by Patronis. Rubin’s attorney, Michael Tein, said he will continue to press forward with a whistleblower complaint and a lawsuit against a Tallahassee lobbyist about alleged political shenanigans that resulted in Rubin’s firing from the $166,000-a-year job.
“We gave them the opportunity to stand down. We offered an olive branch,” the Miami lawyer told reporters after this week’s Cabinet meeting.
DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody backed Patronis’ call to end Rubin’s employment and begin the search for a replacement. Moody said Rubin’s actions toward agency employees, with complaints characterizing his actions as “unstable,” “volatile” and “unprofessional,” were paramount in her decision.
In the initial complaint that led to the May suspension, the unidentified employee said Rubin took her to lunch on April 30 and brought her to his nearby downtown condominium to see recent renovations. Inside, Rubin told the employee to remove her shoes so as not to track dust inside. Rubin also removed his shoes before they viewed the condo.
The complaint said that after the lunch, the employee started to avoid Rubin and was moved to a different job after inquiring if there were other positions available, as the situation was “awkward” and “uncomfortable.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried walked out of the Cabinet room before Thursday’s vote to fire Rubin, saying the issue wasn’t properly noticed on the agenda. She released a statement following the meeting that agreed with the decision to remove Rubin.
“I have refrained from saying much about this entire situation publicly, because I felt we as the Florida Cabinet needed to have all the available information,” Fried said in the statement. “After watching the back and forth, the competing reports, and the flying allegations, here is what I know: Public officials need to be held to the highest moral, ethical, and legal standards, and all allegations regarding those in which the public trust has been placed need to be investigated by independent and neutral parties, so that the truth may come to light. Of what I am most sure is that this situation not only doesn’t serve the people of our state, it is a stain on the people’s Cabinet.”
Patronis labeled Rubin’s actions, as outlined in a report by Office of Financial Regulation Inspector General Bradley Perry, as “predatory behavior.”
Rubin aggressively pushed back against the allegations and against Patronis, including filing a lawsuit in Miami-Dade County against Tallahassee lobbyist Paul Mitchell, who is considered a strong ally of Patronis.
The lawsuit, alleging conspiracy and defamation, highlighted text messages and claimed Rubin’s father, a wealthy developer, repeatedly refused pressure to make a $1 million political donation for his son’s hiring.
FLYING THE FRIENDLY SKIES
DeSantis soon will be jetting around on a new plane, after a negotiation team with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement recommended the state acquire a $15.5 million, nine-seat passenger jet from Textron Aviation Inc.
The recommendation for the Cessna Citation Latitude came six months after the governor was a passenger in a state-operated aircraft that experienced a mechanical malfunction. FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen will make the final decision on the purchase, which will be financed.
Lawmakers during this spring’s legislative session included a $1.29 million recurring appropriation in the state budget to make payments toward the purchase of the aircraft, the agency said.
The decision to buy a plane came after former Gov. Rick Scott, the wealthiest governor in state history and now a U.S. Senator, got rid of state planes and used his own private jet to travel.
IN THE WAITING ROOM
A drive to expand Medicaid in Florida may be pushed back two years, as organizers try to figure out if they can muster the resources to put the issue on the 2020 ballot.
A spokesman for a political committee backing a proposed constitutional amendment --- which comes after years of Florida lawmakers rejecting Medicaid expansion --- said a final decision has not been made, but he acknowledged it may be difficult to meet state-imposed deadlines to take the issue to voters in 2020.
The committee, Florida Decides Healthcare, Inc., has “not made a decision about whether we have the resources and the time to be on the ballot in 2020,” said spokesman Dan Newman, who stressed that the proposed amendment isn’t being withdrawn. “It’s more of a pacing question than it is about stopping or starting.”
If organizers wait until 2022, it could thrust Medicaid expansion into the heat of that year’s gubernatorial race. DeSantis, who would be up for re-election in 2022, is firmly against Medicaid expansion and the federal Affordable Care Act, which allows states to expand who’s eligible for coverage.
STORY OF THE WEEK: At the urging of Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet fired suspended Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Ronald Rubin, who was the subject of a sexual harassment complaint.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Unfortunately, the message has been conveyed that we are asking the public to just go out there and shoot them up. This is not what we are about; this is not the ‘wild west.’ ” --- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission member Rodney Barreto, clarifying the commission’s message about killing invasive iguanas.