- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The sudden ouster of the leader of Florida’s main law-enforcement agency is now causing a major rift between Gov. Rick Scott and other top Republicans less than a month after his second term in office started.

Last week, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater joined with Scott and two other officials to appoint Richard Swearingen as the new commissioner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The department is one of a handful of agencies that are supposed to be overseen by the governor and other elected officials.

But questions over how former Commissioner Gerald Bailey was forced out, and whether it was done for political reasons, prompted Atwater on Tuesday night to send a letter to Scott demanding a new search. Bailey resigned in December, but apparently the three members of the Cabinet said they did not know he had been asked to resign. Since then, Bailey has made several allegations to the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald about political interference from Scott and members of his administration prior to his forced resignation.

“A professional search would give the residents of Florida a full and complete understanding of the qualifications of the person selected to lead one of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies, and help reassure the employees of FDLE that the agency’s leadership will be in the hands of a highly qualified individual with an unimpeachable reputation,” wrote Atwater.

Atwater in his letter encouraged Swearingen to apply.

But Scott quickly sent a letter back to Atwater defending his decision to force Bailey to resign. He said government should “frequently change leadership to bring in new ideas and fresh energy.”

“There are no lifetime appointments in executive government - just as there are no guaranteed lifetime jobs in the private sector outside of government,” wrote Scott.

The governor said he would not support a new search for an FDLE commissioner because it would create “unnecessary turmoil” within the organization. But Scott also said that he wants the Cabinet to consider replacing three other agency officials, including the state’s insurance commissioner.

It’s not clear if other Cabinet officials will support Atwater’s move to start a new search.

Before Atwater sent his letter, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he too was dissatisfied with how Bailey was forced out, but he would only say that he was “exploring his options.” Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement issued prior to the release of Atwater’s letter that her office was “reviewing the matter.”

Bailey on Wednesday confirmed that he was told by the Scott administration to resign, but he refused to address the allegations he has made to the Times/Herald. Those allegations include that the Scott administration tried to get Bailey to falsely claim that a county court clerk was the target of a criminal investigation.

“I’ve said my piece and I have no other statement,” Bailey said.

Bailey was first appointed FDLE Commissioner in 2006 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush and members of the Cabinet. He had held several positions within the agency and also worked as the inspector general for the Florida Lottery.

Public records obtained by The Associated Press show that neither Bondi’s office nor Atwater’s office discussed Bailey’s resignation in emails. But Putnam said “wow” in an email after receiving a copy of Bailey’s resignation letter. In his letter to Scott, Atwater acknowledged that he should have asked more questions about Bailey’s departure when it happened.

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

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