TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott apologized Thursday for the way he forced out the state's top cop, but he continued to insist he did nothing wrong even as other Republican elected officials continue to call for additional investigations into how it was handled.
Scott's rare act of contrition came just a month after his inauguration for a second term. Instead of taking a victory lap, though, Scott has begun struggling with a string of setbacks that could leave him a lame duck even though he has nearly four years left in office.
The widening scandal has come during a month-long period in which Scott has seen his hand-picked leader of the state Republican Party rejected by party activists and his former prisons chief contend the governor ignored festering problems in the prison system.
During an annual visit Thursday to the Florida State Fair that is usually reserved for photo-ops among the corn dog stands and horse stables, Scott and the three elected members of the state Cabinet — all Republicans — spent more than an hour discussing how state agency officials should be hired and fired in the future.
It was there that Scott briefly acknowledged he mishandled the ouster of Gerald Bailey, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"While I wanted to bring in new leadership at FDLE as we transitioned into a second term in office, it is clear, in hindsight, that I could have handled it better," said Scott, who won re-election last November.
Scott did not spell out what he could have done better, either during the meeting or in a brief session after with reporters.
Scott's staff pushed for Bailey's resignation in December. But after his forced resignation, Bailey has made a series of allegations that he refused questionable and unethical requests from the Scott administration and from the governor's campaign staff. Scott has denied most of the allegations, including that Bailey was asked to falsely name a county court clerk as the target of an investigation.
But Bailey did not report to Scott exclusively. And the three Cabinet members who were also Bailey's boss say they knew Scott wanted a change at the agency but did not agree Bailey needed to resign. This has led to a lawsuit from media organizations, including The Associated Press, and open government advocates alleging that the state's open meeting law was violated.
Scott made it clear during the meeting he still wants to replace three additional top state officials, including the state's insurance commissioner, but he agreed to put that request on hold for at least another month as a new process is in put in place.
Left unresolved, however, is how to handle Bailey's allegations. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said after the meeting that "I have no reason not to believe Jerry Bailey." Putnam, however, refused to say if he thought Scott was lying, saying he doesn't have enough information.
Still, it's not clear if there will be an investigation. Scott said he will not appoint a special prosecutor, and the state attorney who handles prosecutions in the state capital has said he sees no reason to investigate.
Alex Sink, the state's former chief financial officer who lost to Scott in the 2010 governor's race, attended the meeting Thursday and sharply criticized the Republicans for not pressing the governor further.
"The governor breaks the law and he gets away with it, that's what he did," Sink said. "How irritating, the people of Florida should be mad about it."
Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout