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Ron DeSantis' security becomes a flashpoint for Florida’s top police agency

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says the increased resources are due to past mismanagement, a contention the previous head of the agency says is inaccurate.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference at the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum in Titusville on May 1. Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's top law enforcement agency is diverting waves of additional resources toward Gov. Ron DeSantis — for both his protection and his priorities — including adding more agents and spending more money as the governor begins frequent national travel for his presidential campaign.

Top officials insist the increase is not entirely to do with the governor's national political ambitions. Instead, they say, they are simply realigning resources after mismanagement by past leaders.

But that's hitting fierce pushback from some of those same past leaders, including from a former department commissioner and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who previously served as governor for two terms.

It’s exceedingly rare for the former Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner and the former governor to speak publicly in a way that contradicts the current agency leadership, underscoring the growing nature of the political clash in Florida.

The finger-pointing comes at a time when the FDLE's resources are being spread thinner because of the increased focus on protecting DeSantis as his presidential campaign begins and its increased focus on undocumented immigration — a top political priority for DeSantis that he regularly uses to criticize President Joe Biden, which is fueling the perception that the agency is becoming politicized.

The efforts include stationing agents in the Florida Keys to watch for mostly Cuban migrants approaching Florida’s shores and sending teams of 40 to the southern border in Texas as part of a broader mission DeSantis said is aimed at preventing illegal border crossings.

FDLE officials told NBC News that changes to the agency were a long time coming, a result of recommendations that Commissioner Mark Glass put together shortly after being tapped for the job by DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet in August 2022. It was not, they insisted, in response to DeSantis' national political ambitions.

“Unfortunately, the team Commissioner Glass put together during his transition found that after nearly a decade FDLE had failed to request necessary additional resources in Protective Operations while the threats nationwide have increased, leaving the section critically underfunded, and in many cases, understaffed,” Gretl Plessinger, the department’s communications director, said.

'Simply not supported by facts'

The idea that the department’s so-called protective services — the term for operations focused on protecting the governor, the governor's family and any out-of-state visiting dignitaries — was strained for resources during the past decade came as news to Scott, who preceded DeSantis as governor.

Scott, who at times has had tension with DeSantis, told NBC News that during his eight years as governor, he never had issues with the details that protected him.

“I had a great working relationship with FDLE and the agents of the protective detail,” Scott said when asked to respond to FDLE’s statement. “Their protective and investigative work was an important part of Florida hitting record low crime rates over my eight years as governor.”

“The agents of FDLE are dedicated, hard working and committed to their mission to protect all Floridians and I appreciate every employee and agent at FDLE who is focused on making Florida the safest state in the nation,” he added.

Plessinger did not respond to requests for comment on Scott’s statement. She also did not respond to follow-up questions about whether DeSantis' increased out-of-state travel leading up to his May 24 presidential launch put a strain on resources, what the expected current year protective services costs are, or whether changes in policy came after protesters got onstage with DeSantis in April — an exceptionally rare occurrence for any governor. During that event at a fundraising dinner in New Hampshire, two protesters climbed onstage chanting, "Jews against DeSantis."

“Regardless of the number of resources allocated to [protective services], under my tenure, protesters were never allowed to make it onstage with the governor,” said Rick Swearingen, who served as FDLE commissioner from 2014 until his retirement in mid-2022. “Perhaps leadership and management of resources is just as important as the number of resources.”

Speaking publicly for the first time since his retirement, Swearingen said the idea that FDLE failed to request resources for protective operations over the past decade, as FDLE’s current leadership contends, is “simply not supported by facts.”

He pointed to spending cuts the department needed to make on his watch due to the annual state budget process. Even when lawmakers made cuts, he said, the protective services budget was always spared.

“Having dealt with legislative sessions for years, their appetite for spending fluctuated greatly from session to session,” Swearingen said. “In recent years, FDLE was forced to make significant spending cuts including general revenue dollars that impacted investigative services.”

Swearingen announced his retirement just weeks after DeSantis signed legislation allowing the governor and a majority of the Florida Cabinet to appoint a new FDLE commissioner. At the time, it meant that DeSantis and the three-person Florida Cabinet could appoint a new FDLE head without the vote of the then-only Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Recommendations for FDLE changes

State records show that spending on protecting the governor and his family has fluctuated over the years but has steadily increased. It went from $2.1 million in the fiscal year ending in June 2012 to just over $6 million during the last fiscal year, which ended in June 2022. The $6 million figure is an increase of $1.1 million over DeSantis’ first full year as governor, and $1.3 million more than his second full year in office, which was affected by the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though Plessinger did not respond to follow-up questions, members who served on Glass’ transition team said their concern was less about protective services being “critically underfunded,” as Plessinger put it, and more about the idea that protective services needed to be more centralized, rather than the more patchwork regional approach that relied on leadership from regions across the state. One of the recommendations they put forward to Glass was to hire a protective services director to help streamline the operation, according to the transition report.

“One of the common themes was that everyone in the regions were completely exhausted from years of protective services, so I asked, ‘When did this start?’” said Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, who chaired Glass’ transition team. “Some said it went back to the Jeb Bush days, others said the amount of travel with Rick Scott. The unit had not grown in a long time, and there was frustration.”

Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak, another member of Glass’ transition team, said it was not that they found protective services “drastically underfunded,” but that it needed to adjust to “dramatically different types of threats.”

“Our response to certain things on the protective ops side was that you need to centralize your protective services,” he said. “I’m not comfortable saying it was just underfunded. FDLE was being asked to do more and more.”

He also said that as Glass’ transition team completed its work in mid-to-late 2022, a potential DeSantis presidential bid had already gotten significant buzz and was something that was part of the thought process.

“We anticipated him announcing, and he did,” Hudak said of the transition team. “That will put more of a burden on FDLE. A lot of that was already in the mix, but it was something that needed to be considered.”

Allegations of politicization

Swearingen, the former FDLE commissioner, is not the only former FDLE official to criticize the department’s current leadership.

“There has been a push of trying to get FDLE to focus on topics the governor has highlighted, specifically immigration as the primary one,” said Jim Madden, a retired FDLE assistant commissioner. “It is sad. We have fought those battles over the years about agency priorities and where it should focus, but right now in my mind, leadership there is just wholly inadequate. There is no solid independence with the agency."

He said the agency is becoming more and more politicized, and when the focus turns to those types of initiatives, it hurts resources for the department’s broader law enforcement mission.

“That always happens when you have these focuses on single-issue initiatives” like immigration, Madden added.

In January, DeSantis signed an executive order that, in part, directed state law enforcement “to provide resources in support of local governments responding to the alarming influx of migrants landing in the Florida Keys.” The order sent both Florida National Guard and FDLE resources to the Florida Keys after roughly 300 migrants mostly from Cuba landed at a national park there.

At the time, DeSantis was starting to really gear up the early stages of planning for his run for president and blamed “Biden’s lawless immigration policies.”

Gretl Plessinger, FDLE’s communications director, said the agency sent resources to the Keys as a result of the executive order, and “we expect this deployment to continue.”

Teams of 40 FDLE agents are also doing two-week deployments along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of DeSantis’ response to Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott requesting help for border security efforts.The beefed-up FDLE security presence was on full display Wednesday during DeSantis’ swing through Iowa, when more than half a dozen agents were often with him at his events — a security presence unusual for a governor.