By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Outgoing Broward Supervisor of Elections Peter Antonacci was named Tuesday by Florida’s Cabinet to be the next Chief Judge/Executive Director of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings.
The vote was not unanimous. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis voted to approve Antonacci for the post. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Fort Lauderdale resident and the only Democrat in the Cabinet, voted against him.
Antonacci, who was among six finalists interviewed at Tuesday’s hearing, must now be confirmed by the Senate. His predecessor, John MacIver, stepped down in June after he failed to win confirmation following controversy in which another administrative law judge claimed MacIver made improper “ex parte communications” in a case.
For the second time in five years, however, Antonacci’s new job creates an immediate appearance of a conflict of interest involving his wife, Anne Longman, a Tallahassee “Super Lawyer” who often represents clients before the division her husband would now lead.
Longman’s practice focuses on representing clients before various federal and state agencies and “the Division of Administrative Hearings in matters concerning administrative and environmental law with a focus on infrastructure,” according to a biography on the website of her firm, Lewis Longman Walker.
Antonacci, a member of the ultra-conservative Federalist Society, was not asked about the potential conflict of interest during Tuesday’s 10 minute interview by the governor and Cabinet. Likewise, Antonacci did not mention it.
Antonacci ethics ruling
The division, also known by its initials DOAH, is a state agency that employs 28 “independent and neutral” administrative law judges to conduct hearings and make impartial findings in cases in which issues of fact are disputed by private citizens and organizations that claim they are adversely impacted by the actions of state agencies.
In 2015, Antonacci was then-Gov. Rick Scott’s new choice to serve as executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. Antonacci sought an opinion from the Florida ethics commission as to whether he would have a conflict of interest because his wife’s law firm represented clients at the district. The commission ruled he had no prohibited conflict.
The commission went on to explain the lack of a conflict by noting that the water management district did not buy services from Longman’s firm, no “unauthorized compensation was present,” the ethics laws did “not apply to the employment or contractual relationships of a public employee’s spouse; and the spouse is not being hired or appointed to a position in the District.”
The commission cautioned, however, that Antonacci should keep in mind that other statutes prohibit the “corrupt use of public position and use of ‘inside information’” for personal gain or benefit by public officials or others. “However, both of these statutes would require intentional conduct on your part, and neither is triggered merely by your spouse’s firm’s representation of clients with District matters.”
But the potential for conflict of interest previously discarded by the ethics commission is different than the appearance problem now facing Antonacci. Before, he was an executive director in a nonvoting capacity. As chief judge he will decide cases, sometimes worth millions of dollars.
Antonacci’s new power
Antonacci will also have power over his fellow judges. For example, Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham was suspended for five days earlier this year for “insubordination and misconduct” after a controversy arose when Van Laningham included a pair of footnotes in a March 13 recommended order questioning the actions of then-division Chief Judge John MacIver following his October appointment by Gov. DeSantis and the Cabinet. The footnotes said MacIver had been scrutinizing judges’ orders and commenting on them before they were issued. The matter became something of a scandal in the sometimes arcane world of administrative justice. The Tallahassee Democrat reported in September that Van Laningham’s suspension was rescinded after he disputed the action against him.
Antonacci is a consummate political insider with a reputation as a Mr. Fix-it who over the years has appeared to shift seamlessly between working for Republican and Democratic administrations. For much of the 1990s, Antonacci was Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth’s chief deputy. Between 2000 until 2012, Antonacci was a shareholder at the well-connected law firm GrayRobinson. In 2002, he represented Republican Gov. Jeb Bush’s daughter Noelle when she was charged with prescription fraud.
In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott made him the State Attorney for Palm Beach County. A year later, Scott named Antonacci his own general counsel. While there, he played a critical role in helping Scott win approval for his blind trust, where he stashed tens of millions of stocks and bonds away from public view. Antonacci did that by misleading the ethics commission, a body on which he had formerly served, by falsely informing them that a then new state statute authorizing so-called “qualified blind trusts” had been “modeled on” the federal blind trust law. In fact, as Florida Bulldog reported in April 2014, Scott’s blind trust deviated substantially from the federal model by omitting more than a dozen federal requirements intended “to assure true blindness.”
The Sun-Sentinel reported in June that Antonacci was fined $1,750 for filing “a sloppy and incomplete 2019 financial disclosure form that did not follow state law by identifying his assets, including the address and value of his home, a 401(k) plan, and various investment and bank accounts.” Antonacci later filed amended forms and told an ethics investigator “he completed the form in a way that cut corners,” the newspaper reported.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Antonacci seemed to suggest that his insider status would be a plus for the division. The News Service of Florida reported that Antonacci told Commissioner Fried “that while the Division of Administrative hearings has to be considered an independent agency and the decision-making of administrative law judges has to be independent, his ‘familiarity’ with the Capitol ‘will be very helpful.’ “