TALLAHASSEE — A top official in the administration of Florida Gov. Rick Scott abruptly resigned Tuesday amid questions about jobless benefits he’d received before he was hired.
Hunting Deutsch, a former banking executive, was brought in eight months ago to take over the state agency that oversees economic development and administers unemployment benefits to out-of-work Floridians.
Deutsch himself received unemployment benefits from September 2009 to May 2011. During that time, Deutsch traveled to Europe but still was able to collect benefits.
The news that Deutsch received jobless benefits was first reported in November by a Tallahassee-based Internet news operation, The Florida Current.
Deutsch, however, refused to answer follow-up questions from The Associated Press about how he was able to collect unemployment benefits during that time period even though one of the requirements was that applicants had to be ready and available for work.
In a statement last month, Deutsch said he “complied with all eligibility thresholds required by law. During this time period, I searched for employment and certified such searches as required.”
When the AP called Deutsch on Tuesday to again ask about his trips to Europe, he said that he had just submitted his resignation letter. He said he chose to resign his state post because the questions were “obviously a distraction” for the Republican governor and his team.
Deutsch refused to answer any additional questions about receiving the benefits.
“Quite frankly, it’s a personal matter,” Deutsch said.
Scott was on a trade mission this week to Colombia but he said in a statement that Deutsch “did the right thing” by resigning.
“It is important that nothing interfere with our mission to create more jobs and opportunities for Florida families,” Scott said.
Deutsch made his decision amid growing scrutiny coming from the GOP-controlled Legislature.
“I think it was bad form to seek unemployment while he was off on a trip to Europe,” said Florida Senate President Don Gaetz. “We’ve got people in Florida who are really hurting for whom unemployment checks make the difference between staying in their home and having groceries on their table, or not. I think those of us in public life should have a higher standard of performance.”
Deutsch’s decision to step down came one day after a Republican state senator who helped write a change to Florida’s unemployment laws said she was prepared to question Deutsch.
“To be looking for work, you have to be in the state,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota and chairman of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee.
Detert was one of the Republicans who pushed through changes to the state’s unemployment system in 2011 that requires those seeking benefits to go through a skills review and contact at least five employers a week in order to remain eligible.
Deutsch 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 position. 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.
In his previous statement, Deutsch said his experience gave him insights into Florida’s unemployment compensation program.
“After working for 35 years and finding myself unemployed during a deep recession, going through the unemployment process has given me a sincere appreciation for those who are doing the difficult job of looking for work as well as for the dedicated professionals who administer the reemployment assistance program,” he stated.
Associated Press writer Bill Kaczor contributed to this story.
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