A doctor tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis to become the state’s surgeon general has been embroiled in legal squabbles and investigations while working at the University of Florida.
Scott Rivkees has been the subject of a university sexual harassment investigation, was found by a university auditor to have not properly filed financial-disclosure information and has sued a one-time colleague for libel and slander.
DeSantis’ communications director, Helen Ferre, said Tuesday that Rivkees is an “outstanding candidate for state surgeon general.”
“He made some remarks early in his tenure at UF and acknowledged them,” she said when asked about Rivkees, stressing he was not found guilty of sexual harassment.
DeSantis announced Monday that he had selected Rivkees for the dual role of surgeon general and secretary of the Florida Department of Health, ending what had been a months-long search for a new leader of the agency.
State law requires the agency to be led by a Florida-licensed doctor.
DeSantis lavished praised on Rivkees and his work experience. Rivkees is chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine and physician-in-chief at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital. He also is an international expert on pediatric endocrinology and developmental biology who joined UF Health from Yale University in 2012.
But a report shows that Rivkees was investigated for sexual harassment by the University of Florida. The probe found that Rivkees made sexually suggestive comments shortly after arriving at the school in 2012.
Rivkees’ attorney, Robert Bauer, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday that Rivkees has acknowledged making inappropriate comments and has “moved on.”
According to an investigative report, Rivkees was alleged to have repeatedly told people, “If we can’t agree on this we’ll have to get naked in a hot tub and work it out.”
Rivkees acknowledged making the comment “and may have said it more than once,” telling investigators that the pediatric intensive care unit was in “disarray” and that the comment was meant as a joke, the report said.
A complaint also alleged that Rivkees made inappropriate remarks at an off-campus event, allegedly telling veterinary students, “Well, we have something in common, neither one of us can have sex with our patients.”
Rivkees told University of Florida investigators, though, that he told the graduates “make sure you don’t have relationships with your patients.”
The findings of the report show that the allegation of inappropriate comments was “substantiated.”
“The respondent admitted to making the comment concerning the Hot Tub,” investigator John Rouse wrote in a conclusion to the report. “The respondent’s version of the comment made during the Veterinarian event was similar to that of the alleged comment.”
Michael Good, who was dean of the College of Medicine at the time, told investigators that Rivkees had been counseled after Faculty Affairs Dean Marian Limacher advised Good of “several complaints” she had received about Rivkees and his alleged comments.
Good, told investigators that “there was no written documentation of the counseling,” according to the report.
“Dean Good further stated during his interview that he felt the respondent’s performance as Chair is good, that he (respondent) has demonstrated good leadership with external and internal groups, and that the respondent’s behavior in leadership was good,” the report said.
The financial audit, which was conducted in 2014, stemmed from an anonymous complaint that Rivkees had outside financial relationships that could pose a conflict of interest given his position with the university.
An auditor found that there was “partial merit” to the complaint and that Rivkees had not disclosed to the university his consulting firm, Scott Rivkees Consulting, which was developed to organize speaking engagements and sales of a book he wrote.
The audit said the non-disclosure was an oversight and that “no intent to deceive was indicated and is not suspected.”
Rivkees subsequently completed the disclosure form.
The Florida Department of Health has a wide variety of duties, such as regulating health-care professions, overseeing public health and regulating medical marijuana. It has a nearly $2.97 billion budget and more than 13,400 employees.
Like other agency secretaries, the person appointed is subject to Senate confirmation. DeSantis has been in office since January but had not named a Health Secretary until Monday.
DeSantis attributed the delay, in part, to making sure he had the right person in place, telling reporters that he wanted to ensure that his nominee could “get to work and not have anything complicated or throw sand in the gears.”
The governor’s office did not provide a copy of Rivkee’s application for health-department secretary to The News Service of Florida.
In addition to the University of Florida investigations, Rivkees has tangled with peers and in 2018 filed a slander and libel lawsuit in Alachua County circuit court against Satyanarayan Hegde.
Rivkees notified Hegde in 2014 that he was being terminated. In his lawsuit, Rivkees complained that Hegde publicly embarrassed and tried to discredit him.
Hegde, a pediatric pulmonologist, now is at the University of Chicago, where he is an assistant professor of pediatrics. He said he worries that Rivkees is not the right candidate for state surgeon general, whose job is to ensure the public health of the state’s citizens, among other things.
“I don’t think that this man is normal,” he said.