TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Florida Governor Rick Scott’s job chief announced Friday he would be stepping down.
All this as Jesse Panuccio was expected to face intense scrutiny during the upcoming Senate confirmation hearings.
The governor’s office said Panuccio is seeking “new opportunities” and that his replacement will be named in the coming weeks.
Panuccio, who has been with Scott since shortly after the governor took office in 2011, said in a resignation letter that his last day as executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity will be Jan. 8.
Panuccio, who is paid $141,000 a year, didn’t say in the letter what he will do next.
“This is a bittersweet decision for me, as it has been a joy and honor to serve the people of Florida,” Panuccio wrote in the letter to Scott. “Nonetheless, it is time for me to begin a new chapter in my career and life.”
Scott released a statement calling Panuccio “a loyal and trusted advisor.”
“While at DEO, so much has been accomplished under his leadership,” Scott said in the release. “He has helped grow jobs by streamlining the economic development process and has protected taxpayer money by instituting new accountability measures. Jesse has made fighting fraud in the unemployment system a top priority, and the agency has stopped tens of thousands of fraudulent claims.”
Panuccio has been one of Scott’s biggest cheerleaders, sending out monthly employment numbers and other releases that praise Scott’s policies for growth in jobs across the state.
The praise was also in the resignation letter.
“It has been my great privilege to help implement your pro-growth policies, which have fostered Florida’s economic resurgence,” Panuccio wrote to Scott.
Panuccio was one of 16 agency heads who failed to be confirmed by the Senate during the 2015 legislative session, which was dominated by health-care fights in which Scott often sided with the House.
All 16 were quickly reappointed by Scott. But to retain their jobs for longer one year, the appointees must again go through the Senate confirmation process.
Senate President Andy Gardiner said Friday that all of Scott’s appointees up for confirmation in the 2016 session will receive a “fair hearing.” But Gardiner added that the Senate will not be “rubber stamping” the appointees.
“We have indicated to the governor’s office … there will be pointed questions to these secretaries,” Gardiner said in an interview with The News Service of Florida. “Everybody needs to be fully prepared for that and not surprised by that.”
Gardiner, who called Panuccio “a good guy,” added he hasn’t heard about any moves to block appointees.
“A lot of these you just kind of have to let them work through the process,” Gardiner said.
Panuccio was among a number of appointees who faced particularly rough hearings earlier this year.
He has also continued to field questions from lawmakers about problems with the state’s 2-year-old, $77 million unemployment benefits website known as Connect.
In October, Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, admonished Panuccio for displaying a “sense of entitlement” when Panuccio dismissed Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin’s assertion that Florida may be purposely last in the nation in paying unemployment claims.
“I frankly don’t like your attitude,” Latvala told Panuccio. “I think that there is an arrogance in the way you present this that’s a sense of entitlement. And I just think it’s wrong.”
Panuccio has also been criticized by some lawmakers for a lack of communication.
On Tuesday, when Scott made a rare appearance before the House Finance & Tax Committee to pitch a request for $1 billion in tax cuts, Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, used the opportunity to say he’s received “zero input” from Panuccio in close to four months of trying to set up a meeting on economic development.
Scott replied that Panuccio would call.
Panuccio, a Harvard Law School graduate, joined Scott as a deputy general counsel in January 2011.
The next year, Panuccio became Scott’s general counsel before being named to replace Hunting Deutsch, who left the top job at the Department of Economic Opportunity amid scrutiny over acceptance of unemployment compensation when he was downsized out of a bank job.
(The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.)