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Martin Dyckman: Is Cabinet worthless? Watch insurance job to find out

Is the Florida Cabinet worth its keep, or is it simply worthless? That venerable question has been brought front and center again by the Gerald Bailey kerfuffle.

In the aftermath of his “resignation” as commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Cabinet – Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam – resembled to a remarkable degree the three monkeys who see, speak and hear no evil.

When Gov. Rick Scott told them Bailey had retired voluntarily as commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, they didn’t seem the least bit curious about why he left without a day’s notice or even a goodbye.

Then they were shocked – shocked! – when Bailey told the media that Scott had put a gun to his head by claiming he had the Cabinet’s votes to fire him. Bailey got only a couple of hours to clean out his desk. All that was missing from his summary humiliation was an armed guard marching him to the door.

But if Scott is telling the truth for once, we have a clue about why the Cabinet may have been so incurious and so quiet.

Scott claims his aide informed their aides that he wanted Bailey out.

If so, and they didn’t pass the word on, there are three aides who should be looking for new jobs.

If the aides did tell their bosses, that makes Atwater, Bondi and Putnam silent partners in what smells like a rotten deal.

They have the legal power to change their agency heads whenever they wish. Bailey isn’t the first FDLE chief ever shoved out the door.

This case is different because of what Bailey said about the events leading up to it.

Bailey said he had resisted attempts by the governor’s office to involve the FDLE in politics and that it called on him to brand an innocent circuit court clerk as a criminal suspect in the embarrassing escape of two prisoners with forged release papers.

Since Scott essentially denies everything, there needs to be an independent investigation. But by whom? State Attorney Willie Meggs already has begged off.

In the 1970s, a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats opened serious impeachment investigations against three top Democrats – a lieutenant governor, who was ultimately censured, and two indicted Cabinet officers, who resigned.

That’s an example for today’s Republican leaders to follow if they don’t want to look as witless and worthless as the Cabinet presently does.

One way for the Cabinet to do something about that would be to stop Scott from carrying out another political hatchet job in another of the sensitive agencies they control.

He’s gunning for Kevin McCarty, Florida’s first appointed insurance commissioner, who is not exactly beloved by the insurance industry.

If Scott has specific grounds to fire McCarty, Atwater, Bondi and Putnam should demand to hear them. In public. All that’s issued from Scott’s office is some claptrap about “fresh ideas and new leadership, especially as we move into a second term.”

But the insurance commissioner no more serves at the governor’s sole pleasure than the FDLE chief does. McCarty works for the Financial Services Commission, which consists of the governor and the Cabinet. By law, Scott would need at least Atwater’s vote and one other to purge McCarty and appoint a replacement.

It was set up that way in part to put some separation between the office and the campaign contributions of the industry it regulates and to make the industry have to pull more than one set of strings.

It’s clearly pulling Scott’s. The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald reported this week that Scott used a Tallahassee insurance lobbyist, Fred Karlinsky, to recruit a Louisiana insurance official to take McCarty’s job. Karlinsky, who was co-chair of Scott’s second inaugural committee, is also a recent Scott appointee to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

People of Florida, do you feel the insurance lobby’s hands tightening around your throat? This is corruption, even if it’s legal.

Scott reported $972,623 in direct contributions from the insurance industry for his 2014 campaign. Atwater and Putnam, with only negligible opposition, reported $309,451 and $57,487 respectively. Bondi posted $88,060. Those numbers don’t include any dark money that was laundered through independent committees.

The three-member Cabinet is the vestige of a six-headed anachronism dating from the aftermath of Reconstruction, when a reactionary Florida wanted no more strong governors.

Florida’s two best governors, LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew, wanted to be rid of the Cabinet. So did Claude Kirk, Scott’s first modern Republican predecessor. The liberal Democrats in the Legislature agreed with him, arguing that having seven people in charge meant that no one was.

A government reorganization in 1969 cut back on the Cabinet’s collegial power. The principal author was Rep. Richard A. Pettigrew of Miami, who became House speaker in 1970.

The big success of reorganization, he said then, was in putting “the people programs – prisons, health, welfare, mental retardation under the governor, who would have to fight for the dollars, and where he has a clear responsibility for proper funding for the programs he feels are just.”

Under Scott, the prisons have suffered greatly. But Pettigrew still stands by what he said then; a good governor, when one is elected, needs the authority to get things done.

“If you have a group,” he says, “they hide behind group responsibility.”

The Cabinet was finally trimmed to three in 1998, but there was no sentiment for entrusting law enforcement or banking and insurance regulation to any one officeholder.

Was that prudent, or was it futile? For the answer, watch Atwater, Bondi and Putnam.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina.

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