New chief administrative law judge feels compelled to contribute
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet have turned to 72-year-old Tallahassee attorney Pete Antonacci — Florida’s “Mr. Fix It” — to fill yet another high-level government vacancy.
Over the lone objection of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, DeSantis and the Cabinet voted December 15 to appoint Antonacci as director and chief judge of the Division of Administrative Hearings.
“This is a legal position, but it’s also really an administrative position,” DeSantis said. “I think it’s really important to have somebody there who is going to run it in a really effective way.”
Through five gubernatorial administrations and assignments ranging from statewide prosecutor to secretary of commerce, Antonacci has been proving his effectiveness as a public servant since he graduated FSU law school in 1988.
Antonacci’s most recent post was Broward County elections supervisor. Former Gov. Rick Scott appointed Antonacci to the position in 2018 after removing a predecessor who was blamed for a botched recount.
Prior to that, Antonacci served as CEO of the public-private entity, Enterprise Florida, making him Florida’s de facto secretary of commerce.
Last month, DeSantis echoed the wide praise Antonacci has received for his performance as elections supervisor.
“I mentioned at the beginning, Pete Antonacci, Broward elections probably ran as good as they’ve ever run. And I know that was because of your leadership,” DeSantis said.
Antonacci said he applied for the DOAH position rather than consider retirement because he still feels compelled to contribute.
“I’m old, I’m really old,” he joked. “But I enjoy public service, as you can see, although a good 40% of my career has been representing private clients, and I was coming to the end of this service, and there was a job notice.”
Like his elections supervisor gig, Antonacci will be filling a DOAH vacancy that was created under less than ideal circumstances. Former DOAH director and Chief Judge John MacIver stepped down in June after the Florida Senate failed to confirm him.
Antonacci’s resume suggests he was destined to fill vacancies.
He was appointed executive director of the South Florida Water Management District in 2015 following the abrupt resignation of a predecessor, who in turn filled a vacancy created by an abrupt resignation.
Since graduating law school and serving as a young trial prosecutor in the Second Judicial Circuit, and not including his service as elections supervisor, Enterprise Florida CEO, or stints in private practice, Antonacci has served variously as deputy attorney general, statewide prosecutor, 15th Circuit state attorney, and general counsel to Gov. Rick Scott.
When it comes to his aspirations for DOAH — which includes 29 administrative law judges, and a separate Office of Judges of Compensation Claims — he prefers to keep it simple.
“There’s two parts to the organization, there’s the resolution of disputes with government, and then there’s workers’ comp,” Antonacci said. “And on both sides, the goal of anyone here should be to deliver quality services timely to people who ask for them.”
Assuming the helm during a COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made the transition any less challenging, but Antonacci said the division has made good use of remote technology, and that represents an opportunity for more efficiency.
“People grunted and groaned about it for the first six months, but it appears that people are beginning to like it a great deal. And if that’s the case, it appears that it’s going to cut down on travel dramatically,” he said. “If the Bar continues to like it, and the public accepts it, we’ll go with that because it’s an efficient way to operate government.”
Antonacci estimates that 90% of hearings for dispute resolutions are conducted via remote technology, and about 75% of workers’ compensation hearings and arbitrations are conducted the same way. The trend will continue as long as the lawyers agree, Antonacci said.
Antonacci’s newest title includes chief judge, but he wants to become more familiar with division operations before deciding whether he will hear cases.
“I’m going to manage this place as best I can, learn about it as best I can, and not do anything with dispute resolution until the Senate acts,” he said. “This job requires Senate confirmation, and out of respect for the way the statute operates, I should wait for that.”
ALJ’s are the unsung heroes of administrative law, tasked, among other things, with refereeing large government contract disputes. Antonacci is confident he has the background to accomplish the mission.
“I had done some administrative law,” he said. “I don’t claim to be an administrative lawyer, but I’ve done quite a few claims bills in the past, and other kinds of administrative cases, and I know a fair amount about it.”
The latest assignment is coming toward the end of a long career that Antonacci never anticipated.
After becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree, Antonacci went on to earn an M.S. in urban planning from Florida State University in 1973. Then he spent several years in “the urban planning world,” he said.
Then he had a change of heart.
“I had friends who were working as prosecutors, people I had gone to undergraduate school with, and they regaled me with stories of the courtroom,” he said. “I wanted to do that, I wanted to tramp around the courtroom, that’s why I went to law school.”