DeSantis defends Florida surgeon general pick despite sexual harassment allegations


Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday defended his selection for state surgeon general amid scrutiny about a past sexual-harassment investigation at the University of Florida.

“My thing is, if we have a public health issue, I want somebody that is going to be able to protect the people of Florida,” DeSantis said during a morning appearance at the Collier County Administrative Building in Naples. “If we have other challenges, like opioids, I want somebody that’s going to be able to do a good job. To me, that should be the focus of this.”

DeSantis announced April 1 that he was choosing physician Scott Rivkees, chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine and physician-in-chief at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, to serve as surgeon general, a position that doubles as secretary of the Florida Department of Health.

The News Service of Florida reported last week that Rivkees had been the subject of a sexual harassment investigation and, separately, was found by a university auditor to have not properly filed financial-disclosure information.

The sexual harassment investigation stemmed from a complaint received in February 2014, according to a university investigative report. Rivkees was alleged to have repeatedly told people, “If we can’t agree on this we’ll all have to get naked in a hot tub and work it out,” the report said. Rivkees acknowledged making the comment “and may have said it more than once,” telling investigators at the time that the pediatric intensive care unit was in “disarray” and that the comment was meant as a joke, the report said.

DeSantis said he isn’t aware of “harassment” allegations involving Rivkees. “He’s been dinged for making a comment or two, which to me I don’t think rises to that level,” DeSantis said. “I think this is a guy who has earned great plaudits from the University of Florida.”

Noting that Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez ran the search for the new surgeon general, DeSantis said his office worked with the University of Florida, which did its own vetting.

“He got a lot of really, really good recommendations,” DeSantis said.

The governor added, “I think folks in Florida they want somebody there, if we have something like Zika (an outbreak of the Zika virus) again, you want somebody who is really competent to be able to respond to that, and that is the criteria that I used.”

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said last week that the Senate will not vote on Rivkees’ confirmation during this year’s legislative session, saying there wasn’t sufficient time to vet the nominee. The session is scheduled to end May 3.

“The very serious allegations against Dr. Rivkees are troubling to say the least,” Galvano said in a prepared statement. “The confirmation process will provide the opportunity for the Senate to gather additional information, but certainly with what we know at this time, I am very concerned, as are other senators.”

Even without confirmation, Rivkees can serve as the state’s surgeon general. That’s because Florida law allows two legislative sessions to expire before an agency secretary who hasn’t been confirmed must step down. The Senate could take up the Rivkees confirmation in 2020.

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