Embattled Fla. banking commissioner claims he was blackmailed by state officials

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Florida Banking Commissioner Ron Rubin has filed a racketeering lawsuit alleging blackmail, intimidation and a “pay to play” culture in which the state’s chief financial officer demanded a $1 million campaign contribution in exchange for the state's top banking job.

The lawsuit, filed late Friday in Miami-Dade County Civil Court, alleges that Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, through an intermediary, sought a massive campaign contribution from Rubin’s 84-year-old father, a real estate developer, as part of a quid pro quo to get the job.

In May, Rubin was put on leave after a sexual harassment complaint was filed against him by an employee with Florida’s Office of Financial Regulation, which he headed for three months.

Rubin claims the harassment allegations are bogus. Instead, he alleges that he was fired when his father refused to pay the $1 million and he wouldn't hire a candidate backed by Patronis as the banking department’s general counsel.

"They attempted to blackmail Rubin into resigning by threatening to use the resources of the CFO's Department of Financial Services to humiliate Rubin and his parents with a public barrage of false and defamatory claims," alleges the 33-page lawsuit, which includes text messages back-and-forth among the parties.

The lawsuit also claims Patronis used state hurricane-relief funds to pay nearly $250,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit in May.

Katie Strickland, a spokeswoman for Patronis, declined to comment. "On advice of counsel, we do not comment on pending litigation," she said in an email.

Rubin’s lawyer also sent a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis calling for an investigation into Patronis and his inner circle for misuse of public office, threats, extortion, unlawful compensation and misuse of confidential information.

The letter states that Patronis worked with Paul Mitchell, a powerful Tallahassee lobbyist, “to consolidate their political power and advance their financial interests.”

“Mr. Rubin details improper, unethical and perhaps unlawful conduct on the part of Mr. Patronis and his enterprise, including the orchestration and publication of allegations against Rubin in retaliation for his refusal to join in illegal conduct,” Michael Tein, Rubin’s lawyer, said in a three-page letter to DeSantis. “The reality is that Commissioner Rubin refused to hire Patronis loyalists and Rubin’s father refused repeated demands for a $1 million contribution from Patronis’ fundraiser. In retaliation, Patronis and others in his inner circle conspired to blackmail Rubin into resigning.”

The letter also said the current acting Office of Financial Regulation commissioner, Abby Vail, took part in the alleged scheme to frame Rubin for sexual harassment because Rubin would not hire a candidate hand-picked by Patronis as the banking department’s general counsel.

Republican fundraiser

Rubin, a former Republican staffer on the House Financial Services Committee, has cast himself as an outsider to the Tallahassee political establishment. He has been a lawyer at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

On July 2, 2018, Republican fundraiser Jeffrey Feingold, the president of MCNA Dental, a large insurer, "solicited a $1 million contribution from Rubin's father in exchange for ensuring Rubin's appointment," Rubin's lawsuit alleges.

A week later, on a phone call, "Rubin instructed Feingold that he would not seek the post if Feingold continued to link the job to a $1 million contribution," the suit states. After he was appointed commissioner, Feingold made several phone calls instructing Rubin's father to pay, it says.

"Rubin's father unequivocally refused the illegal quid pro quo demand," the lawsuit states.

Feingold and Mitchell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Feingold is a campaign contributor to Patronis and one of Mitchell's largest customers, the lawsuit alleges. In one alleged phone call, Feingold told Rubin's father: "I helped recommend your son to get the best job in the country and he [expletive] it up, ok?"

Another phone call from Feingold allegedly had him state: "I'm sorry I ever met you to get me into this [expletive] and you will go to your [expletive] grave you and your wife knowing that your son is a sexual predator and screwed everybody who helped him."

The suit also lists campaign contributions made by Mitchell, Vail and others in the alleged conspiracy to Patronis.

The lawsuit further alleges that Patronis has engaged in a pattern of firing political opponents and replacing them with own inner circle, using Mitchell to order the changes.

Patronis used similar tactics to oust Rubin's predecessor, former Banking Commissioner Drew Breakspear, by publicly disparaging his handling of a sexual harassment allegation, and asking Breakspear to resign, the lawsuit states. Further, Mitchell told Rubin to replace longtime Deputy Commissioner Pamela Epting with Vail, a former lobbyist for UnitedHealth Group.

An unusual complaint

From the get-go, the sexual harassment complaint against Rubin attracted scrutiny in part because Patronis immediately called for Rubin to resign rather than wait for the results of an investigation.

The complaint stated that an employee felt she was put in an "uncomfortable situation" when Rubin took her to lunch on April 29 and they stopped at his condo twice to check on repairs. Rubin also allegedly offered the employee to attend a conference he was going to in Washington and offered her the use of his apartment if she ever visited there. Rubin has argued he would have made the offer to any employee.

Patronis issued an official government press release calling the complaint "sexual harassment" and ordering an immediate investigation by the inspector general for the state's Department of Financial Services, which Patronis heads.

In June, Rubin issued an 11-page statement given to the inspector general alleging he was told by Patronis' chief of staff to hire an unqualified candidate as the No. 2 bank regulator.

In his statement, Rubin claims that Ryan West, Patronis' chief of staff, gave him a resume for Kim Grippa, a professor of paralegal studies at Daytona State College and the ex-wife of a former Florida county commissioner, asking that she be considered for the general counsel role. Rubin said Mitchell pressured him to make the hire.

Though Mitchell is not a state employee, the lawsuit alleges that he had access to confidential HR information and had prepared a resignation letter from Rubin to DeSantis before the complaint alleging sexual harassment was filed.

"Specifically on May 8, Mitchell texted Rubin again predicting the public release of a sexual harassment complaint," the lawsuit states. In addition, Vail, now the acting banking commissioner, allegedly told Rubin on May 10 that the complaint would not be filed if Rubin resigned immediately.

"Rubin refused to resign," the suit states. "That afternoon, true to Vail's prediction and Mitchell's threat, [the employee] delivered a signed complaint to someone at DFS. And just as predicted, Patronis directed his staff to issue a government press release," directing an immediate investigation of Rubin, the suit states.

The lawsuit further alleges that Mitchell intentionally violated Florida's Sunshine Law that requires government officials conduct all business in public. It also alleges that Mitchell engaged in unlawful disclosure of confidential information, and that Patronis engaged in extortion by issuing a press release encouraging other people to come forward and file complaints against Rubin.

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