Search begins after financial regulator firing

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet on Monday formally began the search for candidates to become the state’s third top financial regulator in little more than a year.

A link had been posted on the Cabinet website with information about applying to become commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, a job that includes overseeing an agency of nearly 360 employees and an operating budget of about $41 million a year.

The $166,000-a-year job opened Thursday, when DeSantis and the Cabinet fired Ronald Rubin, who faced complaints of sexual harassment and creating an uncomfortable work environment. Rubin had been hired for the post in February.

The Cabinet website link did not include details about the desired qualifications of the next commissioner.

DeSantis said last week state officials intend to do better background checks on finalists, as they search for a new commissioner who can “conduct themselves and lead appropriately.”

“We’ll get it right going forward,” DeSantis said.

The application process is considered open, with no deadline, until the Cabinet meets to discuss the position. The next Cabinet meeting is scheduled for Aug. 27, as an Aug. 6 meeting has been canceled.

DeSantis and the Cabinet --- Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis --- share oversight of the commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation.

Fried sent a letter to DeSantis, Moody and Patronis on Friday calling for a more-detailed selection process and improved background vetting. She walked out of the Cabinet meeting before the vote to fire Rubin on Thursday, objecting the vote wasn’t properly noticed.

“This should include precise timelines and processes for the posting, recruitment, review of qualifications, current vetting procedures, public interviews, and selection,” Fried wrote to DeSantis and the other Cabinet members. “I also expect that we will discuss the more ‘thorough and intense’ process by which the background and character of applicants will be investigated, as indicated by the chief financial officer.”

Patronis, who backed hiring Rubin early this year and then led the calls to fire him, said Thursday the hiring process would include a “deeper vetting” that would go beyond a standard criminal background check.

Patronis, who in May publicly released a sexual-harassment complaint that ultimately led to Rubin’s firing, said Rubin’s qualifications fit all the “minimum requirements” and he “exceeded them in some cases.”

“Hopefully we can find the right person to change the culture and the environment and leadership at OFR,” Patronis said.

After the meeting, Patronis sidestepped questions about whether the public airing of complaints would make it difficult to find a replacement.

Questions about the state’s background check of Rubin were raised after Bloomberg Law published a report in late May detailing allegations of inappropriate behavior by Rubin toward female colleagues at prior jobs and inconsistencies in his self-reported employment history.

When asked after Thursday’s Cabinet meeting if the political climate would hinder the new search, DeSantis acknowledged he tried to find an applicant before Rubin was hired in February.

“We did make an effort to try to find some people,” DeSantis said Thursday. “The problem is, it’s hard to get someone to come from like New York of Chicago to Florida. I personally wasn’t successful in getting some folks to apply that I thought would be really good.”

DeSantis added his office will be more active in recruiting a replacement.

Fried reiterated in Friday’s letter --- as she said in a release to the media after Thursday’s meeting --- that she supported removing Rubin from the job.

Rubin’s predecessor, Drew Breakspear, who was appointed commissioner in 2012, resigned last year amid pressure from Patronis.

Patronis pointed to a “lack of cooperation, responsiveness, and communication” from Breakspear’s office. Breakspear disputed the claims. Breakspear submitted his resignation on May 31, 2018, and was replaced by an interim commissioner until Rubin was hired.

Unlike Breakspear, Rubin refused to resign after an office inspector general report outlined complaints from various office employees that bolstered Patronis’ call for Rubin to be fired.

Rubin has denied wrongdoing and is seeking whistleblower protection with the Florida Commission on Human Relations. He also has filed a lawsuit against lobbyist Paul Mitchell, an ally of Patronis, alleging conspiracy and defamation. Rubin contends his father, a wealthy developer, repeatedly refused pressure to make a $1 million political donation for his son’s hiring.

Rubin’s attorney, Mike Tein, has also said political pressure mounted against Rubin when he failed to “be a puppet” by hiring people supported by Patronis’ office.