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Nancy Smith

DBPR Boy Wonder William Nicholson Spicola: Who Did He Know?

December 21, 2014 - 6:00pm

In case you think the old adage "it's who you know" only pays off in the private sector, you might want to consider a promotion made last week at one of the busiest, lawyery-ist state offices in Tallahassee.

"Effective January 5, 2014, William Spicola will be the new General Counsel for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation," reads DBPR Secretary Ken Lawson's statement to staff.

It's the darndest thing.

Spicola replaces J. Layne Smith. After four years as general counsel at DBPR, Smith "has made the personal decision to move on to new opportunities," DBPR spokesperson Chelsea Eagle told me Friday.

Personal decision -- or did somebody put a gun to his head?

Those "new opportunities," by the way, are working as general counsel for the Florida Lottery.

At DBPR, Smith was responsible for 70 attorneys, 62 of them full-time; at the Lottery, he will be responsible for two -- including himself.

The strange part of all this is, Smith was liked and respected among DBPR staff. He waswidely credited with having streamlined the department's legal operations, bringing a private-sector mentality to DBPR and dramatically cutting down on each attorney's caseload, especially the number of year-old cases languishing in the files.

I asked one attorney how Smith accomplished such efficiencies. "Through making good use of OPS (temporary, non-benefited) employees," she told me, "and through giving assistant general counsels a lot of prosecutorial discretion."

So, was Secretary Ken Lawson displeased with Smith's work? I don't know. When I asked, the people most likely to know turned squirrely. Lawson was unavailable andPeter Antonacci, the governor's general counsel, turned me over to Chelsea Eagle in DBPR communications.

I wanted to find out how come Smith got bounced to a position where his supervisory responsibilities -- which he obviously carried out well -- would be less, not more.

Even curiouser is his replacement, William Nicholson Spicola.

Spicola must be quite the wunderkind.Eight years ago he was still in law school. And it's only been five years since he passed the Florida Bar exam.

This is what Eagle told me in a written statement:

"William has prominently served as the director of the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco at DBPR since May 2014. Previously, William served as the chief attorney for the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering at DBPR, as senior attorney for the Office of Insurance Regulation and as assistant state attorney with the 2nd Judicial Circuit of Florida. William has been a Member in Good Standing with the Florida Bar since September 2009.

"Secretary Ken Lawson appointed William as general counsel based on his high legal merit and extensive knowledge of the department. Williams background and experience in litigation and the laws governing the department make him an excellent candidate to serve as the general counsel for DBPR," she concluded.

"High legal merit ..." Really?

I'm sensing a credibility gap. Spicola has only been director of the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco since May. Did he tie up a lot of bad guys fast? What extraordinary thing(s) did he do in six months to "prominently serve" the people of Florida?

Nor is this job the most dramatic of Spicola's job successes. It seems to me, almost straight out of the Bar exam gate, this young man has been curried with employment favor and groomed for stardom.

In fairness, in 2006 he did graduate magna cum laude from the University of Florida, with a bachelor's degree in economics and political science; and in May 2009 he was awarded a law degree from Levin College of Law in Gainesville.

Still, in 2009, in the depths of the recession -- even before he was Bar licensed -- the state hired Spicola as an assistant state attorney in its Quincy and Tallahassee offices. From there he climbed like a rocket. By June 2012 he was ready for the big time --chosen for senior attorney in the litigation section at the Office of Insurance Regulation; 14 months later, in August 2013, DBPR hired him as chief attorney for its Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering; and by May 2014 hehad been appointed director of the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco at DBPR at a base salary of$100,999.86.

Either William Nicholson Spicola is one very special, very talented phenom to out-gun 61 other full-time lawyers at DBPR or somebody he knows gave him a leg up.

Could it be a family member? Is Spicola apolitical favor?The family is politically well-connected in Tampa and has a law firm there.

Guy Spicola, a Hillsborough chief judge -- a Bob Graham appointee -- resigned his judgeship in 1988 in the middle of an investigation into his handling of his official powers and some aspects of his personal finances. No charges were ever brought against him.

Before he was a judge, Guy Spicola had served eight years as a Democrat in the Florida House and four years in the Florida Senate. He remains well-connected, though by all accounts, politically he now leans right rather than left and carries some weight among Republicans in the Tampa Bay area.

I don't know for sure how William Spicola got so high up so fast -- skipping over the dues-paying part. But I do agree with a lawyer friend of mine who said, "If William Spicola is qualified to be the new general counsel for DBPR, then I'm qualified to sing and dance in a Broadway musical."

I apologize for having more questions than answers here. Why did J. Layne Smith have to go and how did William Spicola get such a plum job -- in fact, so many plum jobs -- so fast? I talked to several people but noneinstrumental in Spicola's hire. So all I can do for the moment is lay out what I know. Maybe I'll have the answers for you after the holidays.


Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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