Florida Dept. of Economic Opportunity Chief Ken Lawson resigns

Ken Lawson, pushed aside in April from heading the state’s unemployment system after it was overwhelmed by coronavirus-caused job losses, announced his resignation Monday as executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Lawson, who also ran agencies during former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, advised Gov. Ron DeSantis that he was stepping down from the $142,000-a-year job in the “spirit of turning the page and moving forward.”

“Over the last nine years, it has been my honor to serve the people of Florida,” Lawson wrote. “I am grateful for the privileges I have been given at DEO, Visit Florida and (the Department of Business and Professional Regulation). With deep love and loyalty for my home state, I have given my all to Florida and thank everyone I have worked with over the years.”

The resignation is effective after the close of business on Tuesday.

Lawson did not note future plans.

Asked about Lawson’s resignation during an appearance in Tampa, DeSantis, replied, "We have a replacement, and we’ll give you that name very soon.”

“There are some things that need to change in that agency, and we want to make sure that we can,” said DeSantis, who indicated the replacement could be named Tuesday.

DeSantis picked Lawson to lead the Department of Economic Opportunity in December 2018. At the time, Lawson was part of DeSantis’ pre-inauguration transition team and helped author a memo that warned of the “capabilities” of the unemployment system.

The state’s CONNECT online unemployment system largely crashed after the coronavirus pandemic hit the state in March, causing businesses to shut down or dramatically scale back.

DeSantis put Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter in charge of the CONNECT system on April 15, as the state was at its peak of coronavirus-related unemployment claims, with more than 500,000 first-time claims filed that week. Since mid-March, more than 3.8 million claims have been filed.

Just over a week before the agency shakeup, Lawson apologized during a Zoom teleconference with a couple of state lawmakers about the system’s failures, which included the online system going down as people filled out applications and a large number of people being deemed ineligible for benefits.

To handle the rapid increase in claims, the department opened a backup online site for new claims and allowed people to fill out paper applications. The department also scrambled to bring in computer servers and hired contractors and shifted state employees to handle the new data and answer phone calls from applicants.

DeSantis later contended there had been an “animating philosophy” in putting the CONNECT system together to discourage people seeking jobless benefits. He also directed the state’s inspector general to conduct a review of the system, which cost nearly $78 million and started operating in 2013.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, used Lawson’s resignation Monday to call for the entire unemployment system to be revamped.

"We haven’t seen Ken Lawson or Secretary (Jonathan) Satter in months --- as far as I’m concerned, he wasn’t even at DEO anymore, but he was probably still taking a paycheck, and I’m sure his payments were always on time, which is not the case for unemployed Floridians fighting for their benefits,” Eskamani said in a statement. “To this day, we see new unemployment claims come our way, including from Floridians who haven’t seen a dime and others who are missing weeks of back pay. We need to completely dismantle and rebuild DEO with new people and policies.”

In addition to overseeing the unemployment system, the Department of Economic Opportunity is involved in issues such as economic development, disaster recovery and workforce statistics.

Lawson served as secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation under Scott before taking over as head of Visit Florida in January 2017, as the tourism-marketing agency faced a controversy that included House leaders exposing an expired $1 million contract with Miami rapper Pitbull to promote the state.