Scott and Cabinet break deadlock on insurance commissioner, promoting deputy as a compromise


On their third attempt at reaching a consensus, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet agreed Friday to promote insurance regulator David Altmaier to the post of state Insurance Commissioner — while keeping his outgoing boss, Kevin McCarty, on board for an additional 60 days.

Altmaier’s selection came after another deadlock ensued between Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Scott over the selection. Atwater on Friday again recommended Delray Beach Republican Rep. Bill Hager, a former Iowa insurance commissioner, for the post but, as in two earlier meetings, Hager was a no-sale with Scott.

Scott’s own favorite applicant, Tampa-area Jeffrey Bragg, a retired insurance industry executive, was already rejected by Atwater. The governor and chief financial officer, who oversees the insurance commissioner’s office, must agree on a selection, under state law

Friday’s meeting was as awkward as the earlier attempts to settle on a candidate.

After Hager failed, Atwater’s fallback candidate, Deputy Commissioner Belinda Miller, also didn’t win Scott’s OK. So Atwater turned to Altmaier, who has worked at the Office of Insurance Regulation since 2008 and was among three applicants interviewed Friday by Scott and the Cabinet.

Altmaier impressed the governor and Cabinet — with all but Atwater joining Friday’s meeting by conference call — with his grasp of insurance markets,his ability to respond to a decision Thursday by the Florida Supreme Court seen as threatening to the workers’ compensation system, and his focus on the consumer.

“This guy is impressive,” Atwater said.

Altmaier will get a $165,000 annual salary. McCarty, the state’s insurance commissioner since 2003, was set to step down May 2, but earlier agreed to stay on to assist with the transition as hurricane season nears.

Scott and the Cabinet agreed to that offer Friday, but made the point that Altmaier is in command.



As hurricane season nears, search for insurance commissioner still up in the air

CFO Jeff Atwater talks about search for Insurance Commissioner.
CFO Jeff Atwater talks about search for Insurance Commissioner.

Signs of a break in the deadlock over choosing a new Florida insurance commissioner still were not evident Wednesday, although there were some developments at the state Capitol.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater told reporters he was sticking by his choice for the post, Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, who is a former Iowa insurance commissioner.

But Rick Scott’s Cabinet aides also made it clear during a meeting Wednesday that the governor still favored Jeffrey Bragg, a former Tampa-area insurance executive and federal terrorism and flood insurance administrator.

Scott and the Cabinet last month failed to reach consensus on who should replace outgoing commissioner Kevin McCarty, who is set to step down May 2. It basically came down to Hager or Bragg.

The all-Republican panel will get to try again next week.

“I feel very good about Rep. Hager’s application and his life experiences that I think make him a real well-qualified candidate for the position,” Atwater said. “I think it’s likely that as the conversation continues that I still feel very good about that candidate.”

While Atwater spoke in the Capitol rotunda following a news conference in which he unveiled a new program aimed at helping domestic violence victims deal with finances, Hager was just down the hall meeting with Scott.

Hager sought the meeting. And he got little more than the 10 minutes scheduled by the governor.

Following the sit-down, Hager told the Palm Beach Post that it was “congenial, constructive and positive.”

“I was very pleased to have a portion of the governor’s time,” Hager said, although he declined to go into detail on his exchange with Scott.

Hager did say it was “less (about) touting,” his skills than a chance for the two men to get to know each other better. He also said that he was not asked to present himself “in contrast with anyone.”

Hager declined, however, to say whether Bragg’s name came up.

For his part, Atwater defended the extended search for a new commissioner, saying it was a critical position and that the state has been flooded with qualified candidates. He’s still interviewing applicants and didn’t rule out the possibility that other names could still be brought into the mix at next week’s Cabinet meeting.

McCarty is leaving after 13 years in the job and his departure is slated a month before the start of hurricane season. If his successor isn’t chosen soon, Atwater said McCarty could be asked to stay on a little longer — or an interim could be picked.

“I’ll visit that when the times comes,” Atwater said.

Asked whether he’d feel comfortable entering hurricane season without a commissioner, Atwater offered a nuanced answer.

“I would feel uncomfortable with a prolonged process that I did not think was going to have us someone there on either a permanent basis or that was skilled and there today who could help us through hurricane season,” he said.

UPDATE: McCarty in a letter Wednesday told Scott and the Cabinet that he will stay on 45 days after his successor is chosen “to facilitate a smooth transition” with hurricane season approaching.





Port of Palm Beach pay raise has caught Gov. Scott’s attention — and that’s not good

Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach
Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach

A move that would almost double the pay of Port of Palm Beach commissioners has gotten the attention of Gov. Rick Scott.

And that’s not a good thing.

The legislation (CS/HB 1437) made it out of a House panel Thursday.

But it rode a political rollercoaster as Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, first proposed eliminating the pay hike to avoid what he said was a certain veto from Scott –a change that would at least keep alive less controversial port provisions involving foreign-trade zone regulations.

House sponsor, Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, initially supported Ray’s plan — acknowledging it would give him and port officials time to negotiate further with Scott’s office on the pay hike.

But when a handful of Republicans accused Scott of overreaching on a bill that has strong local support, Ray agreed to drop his amendment.

Hager said he would continue to “weave our way through the political process.” But he said getting the bill before the full House could prove challenging, given the governor’s stand.

Scott’s office didn’t immediately respond to questions about his concerns with the bill. But increasing the pay rate for elected port commissioners matches the kind of policy approach that he’s opposed before.

Port of Palm Beach commissioners, who are elected to the part-time post, earn $9,500 annually – a rate unchanged since 1999. The legislation, which has the backing of the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation, would boost the salary to $16,000-a-year and allow for 3 percent annual increases after that.

The port’s taxing district includes West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and the county’s northern area, but the board hasn’t hasn’t levied taxes since 1974. Instead, the district, established in 1915, the district pulls in more than $26 million in revenue through rents, royalties and service charges on port business.

The Port of Palm Beach also is rare among Florida’s 14 deep water ports in electing port commissioners, according to committee testimony. Only two others, Port of Fernandina and Port Canaveral, elect commissioners and — unlike Port of Palm Beach — are authorized to set their own salaries.

Fernandina commissioners earn $12,000 annually, but can go up to $24,000, said Richard Pinsky, lobbyist for the Port of Palm Beach. Canaveral’s port salaries weren’t available, he said.


Addiction treatment ethics bill gets overhaul

An overhaul to a bill, HB 823, targeting unethical marketing practices in the substance abuse treatment industry would create a local pilot program headed by Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg to coordinate efforts to crack down on fraudulent business practices.Click for complete sober homes coverage

The late-filed amendment to the bill would create the Substance Abuse and Recovery Fraudulent Business Practices Pilot Program to “coordinate state and local agencies, law enforcement entities and investigative units in order to increase the effectiveness of programs and initiatives dealing with the regulation, prevention, detection and prosecution of unethical and fraudulent business practices within the substance abuse industry.”

The House Health and Human Services Committee is scheduled to hear the bill this morning and can be watched live at 11:30 a.m. on The Florida Channel.

A Palm Beach Post investigation of the drug treatment industry found evidence of questionable business practices in the county’s largely unregulated, $1 billion drug treatment industry. Among the practices:

  • Kickbacks, bonuses, commissions and bribes between sober home operators and treatment programs to secure patients.
  • Free and reduced rent and “scholarships” offered to addicts with insurance to persuade patients to move into a specific sober home.
  • Predatory marketing, including call centers hired by treatment businesses and sober homes that do not tell addicts seeking help of those partnerships or that they receive a fee for every addict they refer to the center.

An FBI task force is also investigating the industry. John Lehman, head of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, said he expects indictments to be handed down soon.

As part of the new proposal, Aronberg would appoint an advisory panel with at least nine members from the Department of Children and Families, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, representatives from local and county governments, business organizations, insurance companies and treatment providers.

Also on the panel, the executive directors of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association and the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, a Boca Raton-based non-profit that oversees voluntary certification of sober homes.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, SB 1138. As initially filed, the bills in both chambers spelled out specific crimes and punishments for violations of state laws. However, Hager’s amendment – filed Monday night – strikes all of his bill and replaces it with the proposal for the pilot program.

A similar amendment has not been filed to Clemens’ bill, which passed unanimously through the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs on Jan. 20.

Aronberg is not new to investigations of the industry. In 2011, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi named Aronberg  a Special Prosecutor for Prescription Drug Trafficking. In his role as the Attorney General’s “Drug Czar,” Aronberg led an anti-pill mill initiative that helped clean up the pain clinic industry.



Bid to hike Palm Beach Port commissioners’ salaries faces rough seas

Effort to boost salaries for Port of Palm Beach commissioners facing rough seas
Effort to boost salaries for Port of Palm Beach commissioners facing rough seas

A proposal that would almost double the pay of Port of Palm Beach commissioners cleared a House panel Monday but appears likely to face rough seas in the Legislature.

Port of Palm Beach commissioners, who are elected to the part-time post, earn $9,500 annually – a rate that is unchanged since 1999.

The legislation (HB 1437) by Reps. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, and Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach, would boost the salary to $16,000-a-year, and allow for 3 percent annual increases after that.

Powell told the Local Government Affairs subcommittee that port business is booming under the five-member district’s leadership since the last pay raise.

“They’ve increased the amount of business they do three times since that time,” Powell said. “It’s a very important position.”

Lawmakers, however, were skeptical.

“I’m not sure the $16,000 is the appropriate number,” said Rep. Charlie Stone, R-Ocala.

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, also questioned why 3 percent annual increases would be allowed under the bill, a local measure which has the support of the Palm Beach County legislative delegation.

The port’s taxing district takes in West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and the county’s northern tier. Established in 1915, the district hasn’t levied taxes since 1974, pulling in its more than $26 million in revenue through rents, royalties and service charges on port business.

House committee members, however, generally struggled with how much pay was fair for Palm Beach County’s elected port commissioners, with debate taking on a ‘Goldilocks’ quality.