By Dan Gelber
Baileygate took a foul turn Sunday from bad political optics to something much more ominous.
And the Florida Cabinet and Legislature need to respond accordingly.
Longtime cop and FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey was fired by Gov. Rick Scott staffers last month. Initially it was reported that during his reelection campaign, Scott political campaign staffers had run-ins with Bailey who rebuffed their efforts to politicize his agency during Scott’s campaign. Bailey refused to participate in campaign activities and complained about being improperly hit up for campaign contributions.
So, literally days after his reelection, Scott’s minions forced Bailey out. Initially Scott claimed Bailey resigned, but after Bailey clarified he was fired, Scott’s spokesperson corrected the governor.
That’s bad optics.
Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald reported that much more was going on. According to their report, Scott’s office also tried to get Bailey to “falsely name someone a ‘target’ in a criminal case, hire political allies for state jobs and intercede in an outside investigation of a prospective Scott appointee.”
That’s not just bad optics. It’s a federal crime to conspire to falsely deprive someone of their liberty under color of law (Title 18 USC 241). It’s also a state crime to make false statements in criminal investigations, misuse an official position and act falsely under color of authority (F.S. Chapters 837, 838, 843). If the allegations are true, state and federal law enforcement will be reviewing the sorry affair.
The Florida Cabinet and legislature are obliged to conduct their own reviews as well. The Florida Cabinet, who by law must take part in the firing and hiring of the FDLE commissioner, all say they were duped and had utterly no idea Bailey had been unilaterally fired.
That’s not enough. They all voted to accept Bailey’s resignation. If they were truly misled, they need to demand an opportunity to ask tough questions of the governor and his staff at the next Cabinet meeting.
It would also be fitting for them to demand an independent investigation outside of FDLE by someone untainted by political influence.
And the Legislature needs to be acting like it’s concerned. Both the House and Senate have criminal justice and judiciary committees with oversight of FDLE. The failure of legislative leadership to vigorously address these allegations will reek of political favoritism. If the governor were a Democrat, he and his staff would have been dragged in to answer questions within hours of the report.
The firing of a police commissioner because he would not allow his agency to be politicized sends the worst possible message to FDLE and the entire law enforcement community. By all accounts, including Scott’s, Bailey was a “great” commissioner. In this instance he did precisely what he was supposed to do and the law demands.
Scott should have called Bailey and thanked him for demonstrating the kind of integrity you hope your top cop possesses.
But instead Commissioner Bailey got sacked.
Think about what will happen when one of Scott’s staffers asks the next FDLE commissioner or agent to do something inappropriate or illegal? Will they follow the law or will they not have enough guts to do the right thing at the expense of their job?
For Bailey’s replacement, the taint is too much as the public will understandably believe he got the job because he was loyal to the governor and his staff – rather than for his independence and fidelity to the law.
Most troubling is that FDLE has a critical “watchdog” jurisdiction over government and investigates misconduct by state officials. It will be hard for the public not to believe that FDLE’s decision-making is influenced by the political interests of the governor’s office.
It’s not fair to prejudge the conduct of Scott and his staff before proper investigations. That’s the jobs of law enforcement, the Cabinet and the Legislature.
And they owe it to Floridians to do their jobs.
Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor, was a Florida Democratic state senator.