Patronis under fire for handling of complaint

CFO takes flack from both accused and accuser in harassment case

By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida, Jake Stofan - Tallahassee corespondent

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis should be investigated for his handling of a harassment complaint against the state’s suspended top financial regulator, according to a lawyer for the woman who filed the complaint.

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, however, sent the lawyer’s request for an investigation of Patronis to an inspector general who is conducting an ongoing probe into the allegations against Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Ronald Rubin.

Tallahassee lawyer Tiffany Cruz, who represents the unidentified state worker, asked Moody on Monday to investigate Patronis, who on May 10 released a redacted copy of the complaint made by the employee against Rubin.

“My client made her written complaint with every expectation that the complaint would be made confidential,” Cruz wrote in a letter first reported by the Tampa Bay Times. “Unfortunately, Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis and (Patronis spokeswoman) Katie Strickland, failed to adhere to the requirement of the statute and released a poorly redacted copy of the complaint to the media within a few hours of receiving it.”

Cruz added her letter was a formal request and “there can be no dispute that the release of this complaint, even redacted, is a knowing and willful violation of Florida Statutes and should be investigated.”

Moody’s office advised Cruz that the letter was forwarded to become part of the ongoing investigation.

“Because your letter relates to an ongoing inspector general investigation, and the complaint which initiated that investigation, this office has forwarded your complaint to the inspector general for his consideration,” Richard Martin, Moody’s general counsel, wrote Tuesday to Cruz. “The inspector general is required by Florida law to report to law enforcement any violations of criminal law relating to the investigation.”

No timeline has been set for the inspector general review to be completed.

The key part of Cruz’s letter is that Florida law requires employee complaints remain “confidential” while being investigated.

Printed across the top of the Department of Financial Services’ “Sexual harassment and other acts of discrimination” complaint form are the words “Privileged and confidential.”

Cruz also used the letter to request Patronis’ office remove the complaint from its website.

"The reasons that you've got the protections that you do is to protect a victim, like this woman,” said Marie Mattox, an employment attorney. "Why would he do it? What would his motive be?"

Patronis’ office didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment on Tuesday and Wednesday.

While Patronis’ office redacted information in the harassment complaint about the state employee, including her sex, Cruz contends people were able to identify the worker.

In the complaint, the employee said Rubin took her to lunch on April 30 and brought her to his nearby downtown condo to see recent renovations. Inside, Rubin told the employee to remove her shoes so as not to track dust inside. Rubin also removed his shoes before they viewed the condo.

The complaint said that after the lunch, the employee started to avoid Rubin and was moved to a different job after inquiring if there were other positions available, as the situation was “awkward” and “uncomfortable.”

Patronis, in a news release announcing the suspension of Rubin, said there were “troubling allegations in a sexual harassment complaint filed by an OFR employee.”

“Every person deserves to feel safe and respected in their work environment,” Patronis added in the release.

The Office of Financial Regulation, which oversees state-chartered financial institutions, securities firms, finance companies, money-service businesses and debt collectors, has an operating budget of about $41 million a year and nearly 360 employees.

Patronis, who had championed hiring Rubin for the job, has called for Rubin to resign. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has supported Patronis’ call for the resignation. Moody has called the sexual-harassment accusation troubling. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said action will occur swiftly once the inspector general investigation is completed.

Rubin has strongly denied the harassment allegation and refused to resign.

Rubin also requested that Moody investigate Patronis as part of a lawsuit filed last month by Rubin’s attorney, Michael Tein of Miami.

Martin issued a response to Tein on Friday that was similar to what he sent to Cruz on Tuesday.

The lawsuit alleges Rubin, who was hired to the $166,000-a-year position by DeSantis and the Cabinet in late February, has been the victim of “pay to play -- or else” politics.

The 33-page complaint filed in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court alleges conspiracy and defamation and was directed against Tallahassee lobbyist Paul Mitchell, considered a strong ally of Patronis.

The lawsuit, highlighting text messages, claims Rubin’s father, a wealthy developer, repeatedly refused pressure to make a $1 million political donation for his son’s hiring.

It also contends that Patronis and his inner circle, which includes Mitchell, employ public humiliation and defamatory allegations to replace outsiders who “might expose their unlawful activities.”

Mitchell has described Rubin’s account of events as “largely fictional” and “self-serving.”

Rubin’s lawsuit also asked DeSantis to move the inspector general investigation. DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferre said in an email Tuesday that Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel “is determining whether she has jurisdiction over this case.”

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