TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — Receiving praise for his handling of the 2020 election, outgoing Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci was appointed Tuesday to serve as chief judge of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and two-state Cabinet members supported appointing Antonacci, who also has held high-level positions such as general counsel for former Gov. Rick Scott. DeSantis and the Cabinet also interviewed five other finalists for the chief judge job.
“This is a legal position, but it’s also really an administrative position,” DeSantis said before getting backing for the appointment from Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody.
“I think it’s really important to have somebody there who is going to run it in a really effective way,” DeSantis continued. “And I don’t necessarily have doubts about any of the folks, per se, but I think what really impressed me, and I mentioned at the beginning, Pete Antonacci, Broward elections probably ran as good as they’ve ever run. And I know that was because of your (Antonacci’s) leadership.”
DeSantis noted that Broward County posted early-voting and vote-by-mail totals “at like 7:30. And I had never seen that before.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat on the Cabinet, voted against Antonacci, saying the Division of Administrative Hearings, commonly known as DOAH, serves as a “check and balance” in deciding cases involving government agencies and that the appointment shouldn’t be strictly political.
Besides being Scott’s general counsel, Antonacci drew appointments to be Broward’s supervisor of elections, Palm Beach County state attorney, South Florida Water Management District executive director, and Enterprise Florida executive director.
“The fact that he’s been a political appointment since 2012, not handling legal affairs, but coming in and trying to be the cleanup appointment for Gov. Scott, and I don’t believe that when it comes to such an important agency overseeing like DOAH, that this should be a political appointment,” Fried said after the meeting.
Antonacci was named Broward supervisor of elections in November 2018, weeks after Scott, DeSantis, and Fried won races that went into recounts. Scott won a race for U.S. Senate in the 2018 elections and, while still governor, removed Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, pointing to a circuit judge ruling that Snipes had failed to provide public records requested by Scott’s campaign and others.
While DeSantis offered praise for Antonacci’s handling of this year’s election, Fried noted that Antonacci caused confusion a year ago when more than 50,000 Broward County residents were warned they could be removed from voter rolls because their addresses were wrong.
Antonacci said Tuesday the letter, the result of “poor management of a system that relies on automatic prompts,” was rescinded and no one was put in an inactive status.
Antonacci also told Fried that while the Division of Administrative Hearings has to be considered an independent agency and the decision-making of administrative law judges have to be independent, his “familiarity” with the Capitol “will be very helpful.”
I don’t think there’s anything that gives offense to the executive director reporting to the political body about the status of the agency and how it’s operating, it will give no offense to the independence of the decision-making,” Antonacci said.
Antonacci did not run for the Broward supervisor of elections post this year.
Fried said she could have picked three others for the DOAH job, but didn’t give names.
Other finalists for the job were Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham; Administrative Law Judge Mary Li Creasy; Administrative Law Judge J. Bruce Culpepper; Colin Mark Roopnarine, a partner with the Berger Singerman firm who spent nearly two decades with the state, most recently a three-year stint as general counsel at the Florida Office of Financial Regulation; and Tom Thomas, a deputy general counsel with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Antonacci will fill an opening created when John MacIver, an ally of DeSantis, stepped down in June after the Florida Senate did not confirm his appointment during this year’s legislative session.
MacIver selection created partisan friction, as he had been the head of the Tallahassee chapter of The Federalist Society, a prominent conservative legal group. MacIver told DeSantis and the Cabinet when appointed his goal would be to hire “the correct ALJs who have the correct judicial philosophy,” one that he called “apolitical.”
MacIver now serves as general counsel to Patronis.