When Gov. Rick Scott tapped his top lawyer last December to take over the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Jesse Panuccio became the agency's fifth director in 14 months.
With less than two years before Scott will face voters, it's make-or-break time for the governor's economic-development agenda. And the former corporate takeover artist has turned to a 32-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer to shape up his signature jobs agency and its 1,600 employees.
"I'm still drinking from the fire hose," said Panuccio, a New Jersey native whose only previous managerial experience was supervising 12 people in Scott's general counsel office.
He'll need to be a fast learner. As lawmakers prepare to open a 60-day legislative session, they've got DEO squarely in their sights.
Legislators are demanding more scrutiny of tax breaks the state has awarded to hundreds of corporations and how many jobs they've created. At the same time, Scott is asking to triple the incentive cash he has to dole out, from $111 million to $278 million.
Lawmakers also are considering changes to a raft of incentives for the film industry, high-crime urban areas and contaminated "brownfields" in light of Orlando Sentinel stories showing how corporations such as video-game maker Electronic Arts, Universal Studios and Publix have stretched the breaks beyond their original intent.
"We have to make sure we are comfortable that the money's being spent properly," said Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican pushing a bill to submit all the economic-incentive programs to a three-year economic evaluation.
Panuccio says he'll make use of his background as a litigator to strengthen and emphasize DEO's responsibilities to enforce economic-development contracts and other auditing and compliance jobs.
"The main focus of this agency, which is compliance and being transparent, accountable, and efficient, is something a lawyer's skills are well-suited for," he said in an interview.
"This agency is still fairly young. There is still a process ongoing of melding the legacy agencies together."
The Florida Legislature created DEO at Scott's request in 2011, combining chunks of the old Department of Community Affairs, the Agency for Workforce Innovation and the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.
Ever since, the agency has been trying to merge the varied responsibilities of overseeing tax incentives for economic development, imposing new standards on Florida's unemployment-compensation system and exercising what's left of Florida's growth-management oversight.
DEO has been slammed over flawed data suggesting only about 80,000 jobs out of some 220,000 promised since 1995 were ever verified, despite a payout of $738 million. After more than a year, DEO has pledged to provide updated, accurate numbers online next month.
The unemployment-benefit system has been steeped in controversy over an ancient computer and a hard-to-use online application form.
DEO's first director, Doug Darling, resigned after three months in a row with Scott's former chief of staff. And Darling's replacement, Hunting Deutsch, quit after it was reported he took the severance pay from his previous banking-industry job and traveled to Europe while collecting jobless benefits for 21 months before taking the DEO job.
"The governor deserves to have somebody who will settle in and get the job done. Part of that is doing due diligence," said Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who carried the bill creating DEO two years ago.
Unlike his predecessors, Panuccio is considered a Scott loyalist, lured to Florida by candidate Scott's hard-line conservative stances.
After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law in 2006, Panuccio worked as a litigator for the Washington, D.C.-based firm Cooper & Kirk, which specializes in challenging the federal government. There, he fought gun restrictions in Chicago and defended California's anti-gay-marriage amendment, Proposition 8.
In 2011, he joined Scott's office, and eventually wound up as his top lawyer, defending Scott's policies on drug-testing welfare recipients -- he lost but is appealing -- and cutting pension benefits for public employees, which the state Supreme Court upheld.
Panuccio is by far the youngest agency head in Scott's administration. He said he considers his age an asset because many people in their 30s are paying their first mortgages, starting families and inheriting the responsibility of government's tax and spending decisions.
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