Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet have hired veteran Tallahassee insider Pete Antonacci to supervise a cadre of administration law judges who decide disputes ranging from day-care licenses to workers’ comp appeals to multi-million-dollar state contracts.
Nikki Fried, the Democratic commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, cast the lone dissent after DeSantis moved to hire Antonacci and the Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis agreed.
Fried told reporters later that she objected to “the fact that he’s been a political appointment since 2012. Not handling legal affairs but coming in and trying to be the clean-up appointment for Gov. [Rick] Scott. And I don’t believe that, when it comes to such an important agency … that this should be a political appointment. This should have been a nonpartisan appointment of somebody who has the credentials to take over as chief judge.”
DeSantis called the hiring process “basically, a mulligan” forced by the resignation of former chief judge and executive director of the Division of Administrative Hearings John MacIver.
He was a legal aide in the governor’s office whom DeSantis promoted for the job as chief judge in September 2019 but who failed to win Senate confirmation and left the agency. He’d been a lawyer for only seven years but was a prominent member of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy, a conservative lawyers’ group to which the governor tends to look for judges.
When hiring MacIver, the governor and Cabinet interviewed two candidates. This time, there were six.
“This is a legal position but it’s also an administrative position, and I think it’s really important to have somebody there who is going to run it in a really effective way,” DeSantis said, adding that as an appointed supervisor of elections in Broward County Antonacci had run this year’s elections “as good as they’ve ever run.”
One of the other candidates passed over for the position was John Van Laningham, a veteran ALJ who won a settlement with the state after challenging his suspension by MacIver after accusing the former chief of interfering in a case, as reported by the News Service of Florida.
Van Laningham promised that if hired he would never interfere in ALJs cases.
“The director, in my view, should not become involved in participating in individual cases and I think he or she shouldn’t even discuss the merits of a pending case with the presiding judge,” he continued, adding that state law “doesn’t authorize the director on his own initiative to insert himself into the decision-making process.”
Antonacci argued his knowledge of state government would prove an asset.
“The [division] has to be independent. The decision-making of the judges has to be independent. Most importantly for its reputation and for the reliability that it’s going to create out there in the business world. Because people look for consistency in the law,” Antonacci said.
“But mostly I believe that the familiarity I have with this building [the Capitol] will be very helpful in being able to report on the agency as agency — because, after all, that’s what it is,” he continued.
How about the independence of individual administrative judges? Fried asked.
“Well, the ALJs have to be accountable, too. I think there are many ways to run that organization that will help even out the decision making — by even out, I mean consistency — because that in the end is what the lawyers who watch the agency, the business community, etc., rely on.”
The Legislature created the division to hear disputes over how government agencies abide by their rules. According to The Florida Bar, that can involve approval of power plants, hospital permits, government contracting, employment discrimination, professional licensing, the Baker Act (which allows forced commitment for mental health treatment), and more. Twenty-eight judges serve at present.
Regarding Antonacci, governors since Bob Graham in the 1980s have turned to him for sensitive jobs.
Former Gov. Rick Scott named him variously as the governor’s general counsel, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, CEO of Enterprise Florida, state attorney in Palm Beach County, and elections supervisor in Broward County, as detailed in this South Florida Sun-Sentinel report.
Earlier, Antonacci served as statewide prosecutor shortly after that office was created in 1983 to investigate mostly organized crime. He later served as deputy to former Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth.
“All of these experiences have given me the opportunity to see government operate around the state – and we have an enormous state and there are very few people in this state who appreciate that, how big and complex our state is,” Antonacci told the governor and Cabinet.
Fried asked Antonacci about his tenure in Broward, where he fell under criticism for sending letters warning 50,000 voters they were at risk of being stricken from the voting rolls because of problems with their addresses.
“It was the result of poor management of a system that relies on automatic prompts,” he said. “We did it poorly, we rescinded the letter, and no one was put into an inactive status.”