Cabinet backs Burgess to lead Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs

Zephyrhills Republican is captain, judge advocate in the U.S. Army Reserve

State Rep. Danny Burgess will head Florida's Veterans Affairs Department
State Rep. Danny Burgess will head Florida's Veterans Affairs Department

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – State Rep. Danny Burgess was unanimously approved Thursday by the Florida Cabinet to become executive director of the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Cabinet members endorsed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recommendation of Burgess during a brief conference call in which they also accepted the resignation of Glenn Sutphin, who was paid $151,000 a year. Sutphin had been executive director since August 2016.

Burgess, who intends to push for a number of veteran-related measures that he supported as a lawmaker, said after the meeting he will quickly submit his resignation from the House.

The resignation is expected to set off a special election for Burgess’ House District 38 seat, which covers east and central Pasco County.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called Burgess “an excellent choice on behalf of our state’s veterans” and said she was “glad the public has had an opportunity to participate in this important decision.” Attorney General Ashley Moody issued a statement that said Burgess in the Legislature “was a strong advocate for our veterans and I know he will approach leadership of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs with the same enthusiasm.”

DeSantis has the power to appoint leaders of most state departments, but the veterans’ agency is under the governor and Cabinet, with the executive director appointed by the governor with approval by the Cabinet members. Fried, Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis make up the Cabinet.

DeSantis also has appointed former Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, to serve as secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation and former Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, to serve as director of the state Division of Emergency Management.

The governor, who began picking agency heads before he was sworn into office Jan. 8, acknowledged he didn’t know Burgess well before making the Department of Veterans’ Affairs recommendation in December.

“I had not really known him that well, but when you meet him I think he’s just a good guy, he’s got a great heart, a great work ethic, a lot of energy, and I think he’s going to do a really good job for Florida’s veterans,” DeSantis said.

Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican who is a captain and judge advocate in the U.S. Army Reserve, was elected in November to a third term in the House, easily defeating unaffiliated candidate David “TK” Hayes.

Burgess said he will continue to pursue priorities from his days in the Legislature, such as streamlining the occupational- licensing process for veterans and addressing homeless veterans.

“I also really believe that we need to work on helping our veterans who are struggling with post-traumatic stress and brain injury,” Burgess said. “We have a lot of combat veterans that need some help and we need to be there for them. So, I want to look at different ways we can get creative there and focus in on evidence-based, scientific-based therapies that will really help them overcome what they’re dealing with.”

Kathy Lynn Lewis, a Democrat from Wesley Chapel, and Randy Maggard, a Republican from Dade City, have already opened campaign accounts to try to replace Burgess in the House. A special election date has not been set.

Maggard is a former Pasco Republican Party chairman who has been an appointee of former Gov. Rick Scott on the Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board since 2011.

Last year, Lewis lost by 7 percentage points in a challenge to Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, in the Republican-leaning Senate District 20.