Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday brushed aside questions on the departure of the state’s top cop and whether he was dissatisfied with the job that Rick Swearingen was doing as Commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).
Swearingen last week announced he was retiring in September, but then on Monday abruptly changed his departure date to May 1.
Swearingen, who had been in charge of FDLE for the past eight years, did not attend Tuesday’s meeting where his agency had several items go before the Governor and the Cabinet.
“I think he’s faithfully served the state for decades and we very much appreciate it,” DeSantis said when asked by reporters about his impending departure.
DeSantis added that Swearingen, who has been in law enforcement for 38 years, had a “long run” as Commissioner but he did add that “now we’re in a situation where we have an opportunity to focus on some other issues.”
Swearingen’s departure comes right after DeSantis signed into law SB 1658, which tweaks how the Commissioner is appointed. Under the new law, the FDLE Commissioner can be confirmed by a majority of the Cabinet, rather than through a unanimous Cabinet vote.
That blocks the ability of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat looking to challenge DeSantis in the Governor’s race, from stonewalling the appointment.
The Governor’s Office has previously insisted that Swearingen, who makes more than $155,000, stepped down on his own. But Fried repeated her assertions on Tuesday that he was forced out and that DeSantis wants to install someone loyal to him in the position.
“There should never be partisan politics on any of these agency heads. They have a job to do. And none of these issues that come before the Cabinet — none of these things, these decisions they make on an everyday basis — are partisan in nature. We should always put state before party. And it’s unfortunate this Governor has not done that,” Fried said.
Swearingen’s ascension to FDLE Commissioner came under the tenure of then-Gov. Rick Scott. Scott appointed Swearingen, who had been the head of the Capitol Police, and named him FDLE Commissioner after Scott forced former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey to resign.
Swearingen’s departure will create a scramble to fill one of the most high-profile law enforcement jobs in the state. Speculation is already mounting that either Larry Keefe, a former U.S. attorney now working for DeSantis, or Duval Sheriff Mike Williams, who is leaving office due to term limits, could be the successor.
FDLE works in concert with local law enforcement as well leading statewide investigations, including probes into corruption among government officials. The agency also compiles crime statistics, maintains databases and oversees several crime labs that examine criminal evidence. FDLE has a budget of nearly $388 million and nearly 2,000 positions.
This past Session, the Legislature also made it clear that FDLE agents will work in tandem with the Department of State to investigate allegations of voter fraud.