- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

TALLAHASSSE, Fla. (AP) - Republican Gov. Rick Scott, weeks after embarking on his second term with the Florida economy rebounding and a brutal election behind him, has been caught in a growing scandal that is threatening to tarnish his remaining time in office.

Scott is the focus of controversy over his decision to oust the head of Florida’s main law enforcement agency. And Democratic leaders - as well as media organizations- have questioned whether laws were broken when that step was taken.

Scott has downplayed the scandal, insisting no one did anything wrong.

But the former head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has asserted he was pushed out after resisting questionable and unethical requests from the Scott administration and the governor’s re-election campaign. The uproar over the December departure of the former official, Gerald Bailey, threatens to damage Scott and any future political aspirations.

Questions are mounting from fellow Republicans in a state where Scott was once a tea party stalwart. Now the governor and the three officials who comprise the state’s Cabinet are set to discuss the matter Thursday in an unusual meeting on the sidelines of their annual visit to the Florida State Fair in Tampa.

“This is ridiculous,” Attorney General Pam Bondi said. “We have to have better procedures in place so this type of thing does not happen again.”

An ex-businessman who first ran for office in the 2010 governor’s race, Scott has had an awkward relationship at times with other politicians.

Part of the dilemma for Scott is that Florida has a unique system in which the FDLE and some other agencies don’t report exclusively to the governor. Instead, they report to the governor and Cabinet jointly and that means any change at the top requires a vote by the four.

Bondi and the two other Cabinet officials acknowledge that after Scott’s re-election, his staff said they wanted to undertake a change at FDLE. But then Bailey abruptly resigned. In interviews with The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, Bailey said he was told he had to retire or resign and that all four elected officials supported the move.

Bailey has refused interview requests from The Associated Press.

While the Scott administration maintains no one objected to the governor’s plans, the three Cabinet officials say they never agreed to his firing. Instead, they have been effusive in their praise of Bailey, a veteran state employee and commissioner since 2006.

Bailey’s ouster has led some to demand an investigation, including into whether the state’s open meetings law was violated.

A lawsuit, filed Tuesday by several groups including The Associated Press, questions whether the law was violated in order for Scott and the three Cabinet members to agree to appoint a replacement to Bailey at a Jan. 13 meeting without “any debate, inquiry or discussion.”

So far State Attorney Willie Meggs - who has discussed the matter with Scott’s former general counsel - has resisted any calls for his office to get involved. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater want an investigation, even if conducted by a state inspector general.

Both Scott and his staff have repeatedly defended the decision as a house-cleaning measure, without stating exactly why.

“The facts are I think it’s important to constantly look at your leadership team,” Scott said earlier this month. “I did the same thing in business.”

Some want more details.

“The people of this state deserve a better explanation,” said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.

The ouster recalls Scott’s most serious in his business career, a huge scandal involving his former company Columbia/HCA. Scott was fired as the hospital chain’s CEO amid a federal investigation into Medicare and Medicaid fraud that ultimately led to the company paying a record $1.7 billion fine.

Scott was never charged with a crime, but consistently offered vague explanations while insisting he didn’t know what was going on in his own company.

When Scott first ran for governor in 2010, he spent more than $70 million of his own money in a bruising campaign as much of the state’s political and business establishment lined up against him. Four years later, the GOP unified around him against Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist.

Now that support appears to be evaporating.

Scott recently suffered an embarrassing loss when the Republican Party of Florida turned down his candidate for state party chairman. State legislators, meanwhile, have begun raising questions about the performance of several state agencies.

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/fineout

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