Scott, Atwater Remain In Standoff On Insurance Chief

Apr 27, 2016

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater refused to go along with Gov. Rick Scott's nominee for state insurance commissioner on Tuesday, maintaining an impasse over a high-profile appointment that they must jointly support.

Scott and Atwater, with just over a month until the start of the 2016 hurricane season, will make a third attempt at settling their differences Friday, with Scott putting forward two additional applicants --- David Altmaier and Rich Robleto, both deputy commissioners with the Office of Insurance Regulation --- for the state Cabinet to interview.

Meanwhile, the departure date for longtime Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty is also in question, as Scott said an extension would require a reappointment vote by the Cabinet.

"I think we need to have somebody that is solely focused on this job and not where they're going next," said Scott, who last year was unable to get Cabinet members to support his efforts to replace McCarty and two other agency heads.

Atwater said after Tuesday's meeting that he didn't agree with Scott.

"Until a new commissioner is found, he's the commissioner," Atwater said of McCarty. "There was no action to remove the commissioner, so I don't know where I would see action that is necessary."

McCarty, who has not announced future employment plans, announced early this year that he planned to step down May 2 from the post. But he sent a letter Thursday 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. Scott said he was "surprised" by the extension letter.

To back Scott position on the extension, the governor's office released a memo written Tuesday by William Spicola, Scott's general counsel, that said Scott and the Cabinet accepted McCarty's resignation at a Jan. 2 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.

Scott and Atwater are required to jointly recommend a finalist to replace McCarty, with the job advertised as paying up to $200,000 a year. The other two Cabinet members would then vote on the recommendation.

Bondi and Putnam on Tuesday deferred to Scott and Atwater when asked by Atwater for some assistance in resolving the impasse.

"Just like on criminal matters, I seem to feel you listen to me," Bondi said. "I would hope that when you two gentlemen come to an agreement --- unless I believe someone is woefully inadequate, which I hope I won't, based on the two of you and your great experience in this field --- but hopefully I'll be able to back your candidate. But I think the two of you need to come to an agreement first."

Scott was greeted by silence in the Cabinet meeting after recommending Jeffrey Bragg, a Palm Harbor resident and former executive director of a U.S. Department of the Treasury terrorism-risk insurance program. Scott suggested starting pay for Bragg of $150,000 a year.

Without a second to his motion, Scott suggested holding a meeting Friday that would include the additional interviews. The meeting may be a teleconference as Bondi said she wouldn't be in Tallahassee.

Atwater later called Altmaier and Robleto "competent and capable people," but wouldn't say if he'd support either for insurance commissioner.

During a March 29 Cabinet meeting, Atwater recommended appointing state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, at a salary of $190,000 a year. Hager works as an expert witness in insurance cases and formerly served as the Iowa insurance commissioner.

But Scott declined Atwater's recommendation, and Hager and Bragg were back for brief interviews Tuesday, along with Belinda Miller, the chief of staff at the Office of Insurance Regulation, and Raymond "Ray" Blacklidge, who was general counsel for American Traditions Insurance Company in Pinellas Park.

Bondi said the Cabinet should consider removing candidates whom Scott and Atwater failed to agree upon. But no motion was made.

“If you are not going to budge on one of these candidates, then you need to say that, so we can strike them off the list and move on," Bondi said. "Again, we are entering hurricane season and we need to all work together on this. This is a very important appointment, especially for our state.”

Atwater said after the meeting that all four applicants interviewed Tuesday remain in the mix for the job.