By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s top financial regulator was fired Thursday by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Cabinet members, after a controversy sparked by an employee lodging a sexual harassment complaint.
But that isn’t expected to end two months of public skirmishing between ousted Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Ronald Rubin and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, whose handling of the harassment complaint has also led to an investigation.
An attorney for Rubin, who was hired early this year and served 57 days as commissioner before being suspended May 10 by Patronis, said he will continue to press forward with a whistleblower complaint and a lawsuit against a Tallahassee lobbyist about alleged political shenanigans that resulted in Rubin’s firing from the $166,000-a-year job.
“We gave them the opportunity to stand down. We offered an olive branch,” attorney Michael Tein of Miami said after Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.
Tein had argued to DeSantis and the Cabinet that “just because someone rubs people the wrong way, or even rubs some of you the wrong way, doesn’t mean that Ron Rubin gets fired, publicly humiliated and has his reputation destroyed forever.”
Rubin didn’t attend the meeting at Tein’s direction.
DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody backed Patronis’ call to end Rubin’s employment and begin the search for a replacement.
Moody said Rubin’s actions toward agency employees, with complaints characterizing his actions as “unstable,” “volatile” and “unprofessional,” were paramount in her decision.
“One employee said it was very difficult to work alongside the commissioner,” Moody said. “Another one was very embarrassed when comments were made about her sexual life in front of a dog.”
In the initial complaint that led to the May suspension, the unidentified employee said Rubin took her to lunch on April 30 and brought her to his nearby downtown condominium 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.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried walked out of the Cabinet room before Thursday’s vote to fire Rubin, saying the issue wasn’t properly noticed on the agenda. She released a statement following the meeting that agreed with the decision to remove Rubin.
“I have refrained from saying much about this entire situation publicly, because I felt we as the Florida Cabinet needed to have all the available information,” Fried said in the statement. “After watching the back and forth, the competing reports, and the flying allegations, here is what I know: Public officials need to be held to the highest moral, ethical, and legal standards, and all allegations regarding those in which the public trust has been placed need to be investigated by independent and neutral parties, so that the truth may come to light. Of what I am most sure is that this situation not only doesn’t serve the people of our state, it is a stain on the people’s Cabinet.”
A nationwide search to fill the regulator post is expected to begin Monday. DeSantis said there was “clearly poor conduct” by Rubin. When asked if the political climate would hinder the search, DeSantis said his office will be more active in recruiting a replacement.
Questions about the state’s background check of Rubin were raised after Bloomberg Law published a report in late May detailing allegations of inappropriate behavior by Rubin toward female colleagues at prior jobs and inconsistencies in his self-reported employment history.
Rubin’s resume said he was a freelance writer and served in 2015 as senior counsel and chief adviser for regulatory policy on the majority staff of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services.
In his application for the Florida post, Rubin said he left the committee in September 2015 to work as a volunteer for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run. Bloomberg Law reported Rubin was fired from the House committee “due to allegations of sexual harassment deemed credible by the committee.”
Patronis, who backed Rubin’s hiring early this year, said Thursday a “deeper vetting” should have been conducted. He labeled Rubin’s action’s as outlined in a report by Office of Financial Regulation Inspector General Bradley Perry as “predatory behavior.”
“Mr. Rubin’s actions as laid out in the inspector general’s report are pretty indefensible,” Patronis said. “The claims that he acted to repeatedly push and then cross the limits of professional behavior, and in some cases human decency, makes him unfit for public office in the state of Florida.”
Rubin aggressively pushed back against the allegations and against Patronis, including filing a lawsuit in Miami-Dade County against Tallahassee lobbyist Paul Mitchell, who is considered a strong ally of Patronis.
The lawsuit, alleging conspiracy and defamation, highlighted text messages and claimed Rubin’s father, a wealthy developer, repeatedly refused pressure to make a $1 million political donation for his son’s hiring.
Tein said political pressure mounted against Rubin when he failed to “be a puppet” by hiring people supported by Patronis’ office.
Patronis said he knows Mitchell but called it “inappropriate” to discuss the ongoing lawsuit.
Patronis’ public release of a redacted version of the initial sexual harassment complaint also is under review by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Tein rejected the labeling of the complaints against Rubin as sexual harassment and argued after the meeting that the “Me Too” movement intended to help survivors of sexual violence has been “weaponized” for political gain.
“Women who believe they have been discriminated against in the workplace need to be free and feel free to file complaints and have them heard without the fear that they’re going to be disclosed just two hours after they’re written and handed into the supervisor, published on the internet,” Tein said. “For the CFO, with all due respect to him, for him to disclose that complaint just two hours after getting it and in the same press release say he stands for the Me Too movement, that’s cynical.”
Rubin has filed for whistleblower protection with the Florida Commission on Human Relations. He has until Monday to submit a formal complaint.