Eleven months after Florida’s top financial regulator was ousted for failing to stop criminals from fleecing borrowers in the mortgage industry, state leaders named a banking industry lawyer to head the agency entrusted with investigating financial fraud and protecting consumers.
Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Cabinet appointed J. Thomas Cardwell on Tuesday to succeed Don Saxon as commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation.
Cardwell has served as CEO of Akerman Senterfitt, one of the state’s largest and most politically connected law firms. The Orlando lawyer — who previously kept an office in Miami — has close ties to the banking industry, serving 24 years as general counsel to the Florida Bankers Association.
“I have every expectation that Tom Cardwell will bring a strong enforcement mentality and responsible approach to the Office of Financial Regulation,” Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said Tuesday. “His experience will help him lead OFR with the integrity and dedication Floridians deserve in these challenging economic times.”
But Cardwell’s years representing the banking industry prompted some to question if he’s the person to steer a government agency charged with protecting consumers and carrying out sweeping reforms.
“It’s certainly cause for concern after seeing how the banking industry has acted in recent years,” said Rep. Scott Randolph, an Orlando Democrat on the Finance and Tax Council. “They have been opponents to some of the most basic consumer-protection reforms.”
Richard Stephens, a longtime Florida securities attorney who represents consumers in stock-fraud cases, also questions Cardwell’s appointment. “He has worked for a firm that represents the industry,” said Stephens. ” just don’t see him as the guy who is going to fight for the little guy. . . . His orientation, his buddies, are all industry people.”
Cardwell said he comes to the $133,000 job with no specific agenda, saying his only priority right now is to ensure the office operates competently and fairly. The veteran banking lawyer said he has never worked in the public sector but is at a point in his life when he would like to try.
“Wearing a consumer-protection hat is not something that is a problem for me,” said Cardwell.
Crist, Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum voted to appoint Cardwell. The fourth Cabinet member, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, did not attend the Tuesday Cabinet meeting.
Cardwell is scheduled to begin work at the OFR on Aug. 24, said agency spokeswoman Holly Hinson.
Saxon, a 30-year veteran of the agency, resigned in September 2008 after a Miami Herald series revealed how the agency had failed to perform required background checks and allowed thousands of criminals — including bank robbers, embezzlers and convicted racketeers — to work as mortgage brokers during the housing boom.
For almost a year, the OFR has lacked a permanent leader while fraud cases swept Florida — including mortgage and securities scandals surrounding the likes of Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford.
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