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Atwater Disputes Scott Over Insurance Chief’s Exit

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
State of Florida
The Florida Channel
State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

A disagreement about the pending exit of Florida's longtime insurance commissioner continued Wednesday, as the state Cabinet prepares to again try to end an impasse about hiring a new commissioner.

State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who refused Tuesday to accept Gov. Rick Scott's nominee for insurance commissioner, issued a statement Wednesday disagreeing with the governor over the departure date of outgoing Commissioner Kevin McCarty.

"I am disappointed that in its eagerness to replace Commissioner McCarty, the governor's office has chosen to quibble about his resignation letter," Atwater said in a release. "We should take full advantage of Commissioner McCarty's gracious offer to continue to provide consistent and knowledgeable leadership during this period, thereby affording the Cabinet the opportunity for a thorough and well considered hiring process."

McCarty, who has not announced future employment plans, said early this year that he planned to step down May 2 from the post. But he sent a letter last week to Scott and each Cabinet member --- Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam --- agreeing to remain in the job 45 days beyond his planned exit date. The move would allow the state to avoid having the commissioner position vacant as the 2016 hurricane season begins on June 1.

Scott, who sought a year ago to remove McCarty, said Tuesday that the extension proposed by McCarty would require a reappointment vote by the Cabinet. No motion was made by Scott or any other member of the Cabinet regarding a reappointment.

A memo released Tuesday by William Spicola, Scott's general counsel, backed up the governor, saying Scott and the Cabinet accepted McCarty's resignation during a January Cabinet meeting.

"McCarty cannot unilaterally extend his appointment after he, the governor and the Cabinet all mutually agreed that his last day would be on May 2nd," Spicola wrote.

Atwater on Tuesday disputed Scott's take that a reappointment vote would be needed. And on Wednesday his general counsel, M. Drew Parker, issued an opinion that said such a vote is unnecessary as the Cabinet --- acting as the state Financial Services Commission --- never accepted the resignation.

"Although Commissioner McCarty tendered a resignation letter, the Financial Services Commission did not formally accept the resignation," Parker wrote. "Commissioner McCarty, therefore, may tender an amended resignation letter providing for an alternative last day in office."

At a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, Scott mentioned McCarty "resignation is effective May 2," before going into a discussion of a timeline to find a replacement, which the Cabinet members appeared to agree upon.

The talks were held under an agenda item labeled: "Discussion of appointments for Department of Revenue Executive Director and Office of Insurance Regulation Commissioner."

According to the transcript of the meeting, only Putnam reportedly said McCarty's name during the meeting.

While Scott appoints most state agency heads, the insurance commissioner is appointed by the governor and Cabinet. Scott and Atwater are required to agree on a nominee, who then would go before the full Cabinet for a vote.

Atwater and Scott have failed on two occasions to agree on a finalist to recommend for the job. The most recent impasse came Tuesday when Atwater awkwardly sat silent for about 20 seconds in refusing to go along with Scott's proposal to give the job to Jeffrey Bragg. Bragg is a Palm Harbor resident and former executive director of a U.S. Department of the Treasury terrorism-risk insurance program.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Atwater talked with David Altmaier and Rich Robleto, both deputy commissioners with the Office of Insurance Regulation.

Atwater also met with Eric Johnson, the chief actuary at the Office of Insurance Regulation, to discuss the commissioner's job, which has been advertised at paying up to $200,000 a year.

After Scott and Atwater could not agree on a nominee Tuesday, the governor proposed an emergency meeting for Friday in which Cabinet members could interview Altmaier and Robleto. Because Bondi said she wouldn't be in Tallahassee, Scott recommended a telephone conference call.

The meeting has been posted on the Cabinet website as happening at 9 a.m. in the Cabinet meeting room.

Atwater, who has backed state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, for the job, had interviewed Altmaier, Robleto and Johnson on March 22 as he narrowed a list of applicants.

On Tuesday, McCarty replied "no" when asked if any of the Cabinet members had asked for his recommendation or input concerning finalists for the job.