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Gov. DeSantis says replacement for departed DEO head Ken Lawson could be named Tuesday

Unemployment website failures came to define his tenure.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said in Tampa Monday that a replacement could be named as soon as Tuesday for Florida Department of Economic Opportunity head Ken Lawson. And that “things needed to change” in the troubled department.

Lawson submitted his resignation Monday, ending a tenure made complicated by the surge of unemployment claims starting in March.

Lawson said he was moving forward and turning the page.

“In the spirit of moving forward and turning the page, I have resigned from DEO. However, it has been my great honor to serve and to work with each of you. I am extremely grateful for the dedication and focus that you all have given to the people of Florida,” Lawson wrote in an email to staff.

With his resignation, Lawson ends what was an embattled tenure as the state’s chief jobs official.

DeSantis sidelined Lawson this spring after COVID-19-related closures brought the economy to its knees and record-breaking joblessness buckled the state’s unemployment compensation system, CONNECT.

Shortly before the leadership shakeup, Lawson had publicly apologized for the distress the problems caused the newly unemployed. “From my heart, I apologize for what you’re going through,” he said then.

In comments to media Monday, the Governor criticized the “difficult system” Lawson administered, crediting Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter with “getting it going.”

Hundreds of thousands of Floridians, a number that eventually surpassed 1 million, were met with a website that locked them out of applications and glitches that made the process unnavigable.

Democrats and Republicans alike have acknowledged that the problems with the CONNECT system predated the pandemic. The outbreak had caused the state’s unemployment rate to spike to 13.8% in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 4.4% the month before.

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Responding to the crisis, DeSantis left Lawson nominally in place. However, Satter was charged with rehabbing the failed website.

While some had called for Lawson’s ouster, including Sen. Janet Cruz who Lawson stood up for a town hall meeting in early April, others worried Lawson was taking the fall for an overall administrative failure.

In December 2018, a month before DeSantis was sworn in, Lawson, then President of VISIT FLORIDA, warned the Governor’s transition team about grave deficiencies in the state’s unemployment compensation portal. The memo noted that the state’s reemployment system “may struggle in the event claims volume increases in the future.”

“To his credit, he submitted a memo to the Governor even before the Governor got sworn in,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, adding that addressing the deficiencies “was not a priority of the DeSantis administration.”

The Governor’s office has said that it was not aware of the “extraordinary deficiencies” and could not have foreseen the coming meltdown.

Tonya Olson, a physical therapist in St. Petersburg who waited three months for her first unemployment check, said Lawson was made to be a scapegoat and was one of the few who actually seemed to care.

“He’s the only person that I’ve seen who’s gone on record to apologize, take responsibility, and pledge to fix CONNECT and get people paid,” she said.

Florida’s unemployment system became fodder for state and national Democrats, who pushed for investigations into the failures, including an explanation of why the state could not deliver timely benefits.

“To this day we see new unemployment claims come our way, including from Floridians who haven’t seen a dime and others who are missing weeks of back pay. We need to completely dismantle and rebuild DEO with new people and policies,” said state Rep. Anna V. Eskamani.

Florida Democrats, who have been releasing a daily tally of those waiting for benefits, say the DeSantis administration has not fully resolved problems. According to state Senate Democrats, 1.7 million Floridians are waiting for benefits.

DeSantis has since pegged blame for the failed system on his predecessor, now U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, for creating a system that was designed to fail. DeSantis likened the website to a “jalopy in the Daytona 500.” And an Inspector General inquiry into site procurement continues.

To get the system up to snuff, DeSantis’ administration had to fork over upward of $100 million in no-bid contracts to expand capacity on the website and to hire hundreds of temporary staffers to accommodate the deluge of calls.

POLITICO reported Lawson has been looking for new positions in recent weeks.

Lawson’s former position also handles workforce development, economic incentives and some housing matters. But the unemployment issue will be his legacy at DEO.

Lawson served on DeSantis’ transition team. He also worked in Scott’s administration as CEO of VISIT FLORIDA and Secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

It’s unclear what Lawson’s next move is. But the Governor’s next move is imminent.

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The Associated Press contributed to this post.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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