Democrat Nikki Fried lobs fresh bombs at Gov. DeSantis over cancellation of Cabinet meeting

By: - June 10, 2020 1:47 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared with Nikki Fried (from left), Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, during the 2018 Legislature’s organizational session. Credit: Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

The political warfare between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the only Democrat on the Florida Cabinet — Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — heated up this week after the governor cancelled next week’s Cabinet meeting and Fried accused DeSantis of “ignoring his constitutional responsibility.”

The cancellation and that of a clemency hearing set for next Wednesday were announced in a memo sent Tuesday by Beau Beaubien, the governor’s Cabinet aide, who wrote that both hearings would be rescheduled during July.

Beaubien indicated that DeSantis needed more time to consider replacements for John MacIver, his hand-picked head of a powerful administrative hearing system.

“An agenda item to begin the process of filling the vacancy will be on the next agenda,” Beaubien wrote.

Fried, an attorney, elected public official and the head of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, had just that morning urged the governor to add a discussion of that position and other pressing matters to the Tuesday agenda.

Following the cancellation, she issued a written broadside against DeSantis, who also in an attorney.

“By canceling next week’s Cabinet and clemency meetings, the governor is not only ignoring his constitutional responsibility to govern alongside his fellow independently-elected Cabinet members, but also further denying Floridians their voting and civil rights,” Fried said.

“He can’t be bothered to conduct Cabinet business, including the agenda items I again requested earlier today. We haven’t held a clemency meeting since December; the governor cannot continue denying our citizens the ability to earn back their civil rights through our clemency process, broken as it may be.”

Under Florida’s unique Cabinet system, officials independently elected statewide help governors decide many matters of policy, including bond issues, environmental land buys, and executive clemency.

The tradition has been toward collegiality, but the Cabinet has met only twice this year, and Fried’s election in 2018 broke the GOP’s hegemony on the panel. The practice in the past was to meet monthly. Governors chair Cabinet meetings and set their agendas.

Fried had been growing increasingly frustrated over DeSantis’ failure to schedule regular Cabinet meetings or include her when deciding policy matters that typically involve Cabinet members, including the COVID-19 response.

MacIver’s hiring was a case in point.

DeSantis and his fellow Republicans on the Cabinet — Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody — plucked MacIver from the governor’s legal office in September to serve as director and chief judge of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings. He’d been a practicing attorney for only seven years.

The Senate never confirmed him, yet he continued to serve. In his resignation letter, MacIver gave two weeks’ notice, setting an effective date of June 19. The letter, dated Monday, says he had accepted a position with Patronis “and can no longer seek reappointment.”

Most people have never heard of it, but the division’s 29 judges hold considerable authority over Floridians’ lives, arbitrating citizens’ and businesses’ disputes with state agencies on matters including development decisions and occupational licenses.

Millions of dollars can ride on their rulings, and they can come under political pressure, as the Miami Herald-Tampa Bay Times joint Tallahassee bureau reported at the time.

MacIver was one of only two candidates for the position whom DeSantis invited to interview with himself and the Cabinet after forcing out the incumbent. He was a veteran of conservative organizations including the Federalist Society, which espouses conservative legal positions. DeSantis himself has been a member.

MacIver confessed during his interview that he’d been troubled in his youth and been kicked out of the Navy.

MacIver hewed to the Federalist line in his resignation letter, writing that the division’s role is to “provide impartial adjudication grounded in the plain meaning of the legal text.”

Fried at the time of the vote objected that neither candidate was fully qualified.

On Tuesday, in a memo to the governor’s office, Fried asked for a discussion of the position and other matters of state concern, including wildfire conditions, COVID-related food distribution efforts, the damage to the state budget from COVID restrictions, and questions about the integrity of the state’s COVID data.

As for MacIver, he will serve as general counsel to Patronis, Deputy CFO Frank Collins confirmed by email Wednesday morning. The CFO presides over the Department of Financial Services and serves as state fire marshal.

“We proactively reached out to John to see if he was interested in being the CFO’s general counsel and he accepted,” Collins wrote.

“He’s got tons of experience. He served two governors and recently served as a judge. The CFO wanted a fighter that would protect consumers and ensure taxpayer dollars are used properly, and we’re thrilled John is joining the team.”

The Florida Democratic Party Chair, Terrie Rizzo, released a statement about the concerns, saying:

“It is completely unacceptable that DeSantis continues to ignore his constitutional responsibility to convene the Florida Cabinet. Not only is DeSantis failing to resolve critical issues facing Florida during a time of crisis, he is also denying Floridians, time and time again, the opportunity to restore their voting rights through the clemency process. I commend Commissioner Fried for fighting to see that the Cabinet works as it is supposed to do and continuing to push to address the pressing issues facing our state.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported Beau Beaubien’s role in the DeSantis administration.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.