Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday turned to his top lawyer to take over the state's jobs agency after the executive director abruptly resigned amid questions about jobless benefits he received before he was hired.
Scott on Thursday named Jesse Panuccio, the governor's general counsel, to replace Hunting Deutsch. Deutsch quit earlier this week, after about eight months on the job.
Panuccio becomes the third person to take over the Department of Economic Opportunity, which was created a year ago at the urging of Scott, a Republican. The agency - which was formed from parts of several former agencies - handles economic development and runs the state's unemployment compensation system.
Scott's decision to turn to another administration official to lead the agency marks a dramatic shift from the governor's first year in office, when he tried to attract people outside of government to take top posts.
Panuccio has been involved in many high-profile battles of the Scott administration, including appearing in court to argue in favor of Scott's push to drug-test welfare recipients. Panuccio also recently unsuccessfully tried to get a judge to shield Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll from being questioned in a criminal case involving one of her former aides.
"Jesse's unparalleled work ethic and intellectual capacity will be a much needed catalyst for progress," Scott said in a statement. "Jesse has skillfully represented our office and the people of Florida in important legal cases over the last two years and we are excited to have him devote his energy and skill to another vital part of state government."
Scott, fresh back from a trade mission to Colombia, also appointed outgoing State Attorney Peter Antonacci of West Palm Beach to replace Panuccio as his general counsel. Antonacci is a former statewide prosecutor and deputy attorney general. He also represented former governors in impeachment trials against local election supervisors.
Panuccio will start his new position on Jan. 8.
The changes follow Deutsch's decision to resign on Tuesday after questions were raised about unemployment compensation he received from September 2009 through May 2011. That period included a time he was traveling in Europe and presumably unavailable to work in Florida as required.
Deutsch maintained he had met eligibility requirements, but some Republican state senators raised questions about how he could get benefits while traveling abroad. Deutsch could have had a rough time getting confirmed by the state Senate if he had remained in the job.
He had spent more than 30 years in the banking industry up to 2009. But the bank that employed him failed and was seized by federal regulators that year.
Deutsch has acknowledged he received a severance payment from the bank, but he has said he cannot discuss it due to a confidentiality agreement. He was out of work until he was hired this past April to his $140,000-a-year post. Despite a gap in Deutsch's resume, a spokeswoman for Scott said that the governor was unaware that Deutsch had applied for and received jobless benefits.
The maximum amount of benefits that Deutsch would have been eligible to receive was $275 a week.
Deutsch himself replaced the first head of the agency, Doug Darling, who was forced to resign by the Scott administration right before he was scheduled to have his first confirmation hearing.