Privatization plan’s flop marked by campaign contribution talk, fuzzy memories

 

Matt Dixon, (@MDixon55)

TALLAHASSEE _ Joined by his wife, Senate President Don Gaetz sat with CPA Steve Riggs having dinner in his Panhandle district.
Gaetz nominated his longtime friend for the state Board of Accountancy, which Riggs now chairs, and they were among a handful of founding members in 2005 of Destin First Bank, which Gaetz no longer is affiliated with.
When Gaetz was superintendent of the Okaloosa County School District a year earlier, Riggs donated $500,000 to build a new football stadium at Fort Walton Beach High School, where he graduated from in 1972. In return, the field was named “Steve Riggs Stadium.”
Among the topics discussed over the Jan. 25 dinner was privatizing the attorneys and investigators who look into complaints filed with the Board of Accountancy, the accounting board chaired by Riggs and overseen by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Gaetz supported the idea, which eventually fell flat — but not before the injection of a dose of politics into what’s an otherwise low-key public accounting board.
“My wife Susan and I had dinner last night with Don and Vicki Gaetz,” Riggs wrote in a Jan. 26 email to Rivers Buford, head of government affairs for the Florida Institute of CPAs. “This matter was discussed and very favorably received by Don.”
In his email, which Gaetz wasn’t copied on, Riggs said if the Board of Accountancy approved the plan, the change would be “strongly supported by the president of the Senate in this legislative session.”
The dinner was five days before the Board of Accountancy discussed the issue during a public meeting in Tampa. At that meeting, Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Ken Lawson and other department officials asked the board for an additional six months as their new beefed-up team came together, an extension the board granted.
In 2013, lawmakers gave Lawson’s department roughly $400,000 to strengthen the investigative unit. The money paid for seven new staffers, including two attorneys.
“Give the new unit a chance,” Lawson told the board, according to minutes of the Jan. 30 meeting.
State records show the average number of days to investigate a complaint submitted to the Board of Accountancy dropped from 313 days in February 2013 to 110 in January 2014.
In an unusual mix of politics and policy during the meeting of a government regulatory board, Riggs reminded Lawson that he (Riggs) had given campaign contributions to Gov. Rick Scott. Usually, officials and lawmakers take great pains to avoid the perception that politics creep into policy discussions.
When asked by a Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau reporter later about the comment, Riggs didn’t deny saying it, but wouldn’t elaborate further.
“I support Governor Scott because I believe he has been a good governor and has helped turn the Florida economy around,” Riggs wrote in an email.
His remark wasn’t reflected in the meeting minutes, and an audio of the meeting provided by the department was inaudible.
Campaign finance records show he has given $1,500 to Let’s Get to Work, a committee aligned with Scott’s re-election.
Gaetz, when asked by a reporter about the plan in late February, said he knew nothing about the idea.
However, he quickly remembered it the next day in an interview when shown the email indicating that he had discussed the proposal with Riggs over dinner.
“I didn’t connect the dots,” Gaetz admitted, confirming to a reporter he remains open to the idea. “Then you sent the emails … and I saw what you were talking about.”
__ Contact: Matt.Dixon@naplesnews.com or 352-233-0777

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