In Florida, a Political Marriage Soured Before a Top Official Stepped Down

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- As the annual press corps political roast unfolded here on Tuesday evening, Gov. Rick Scott stared stone-faced, holding a secret, while he watched a reporter spoof his strained relationship with his lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll.

Donning gold stilettos and a gold sequin dress -- a nod to Ms. Carroll's eye-catching style -- the reporter belted a version of Aretha Franklin's anthem "Respect." "You're leaving me? Rickie, I doubt it," she sang. "Made some mistakes, but I pulled through," she intoned. "All I'm asking is for a little respect for ya girl (just a little bit)."

What nearly everyone in that room did not know was that Ms. Carroll, the first black woman to serve in the state's No. 2 spot, had only hours earlier signed a resignation letter, while seated at a small conference table in her office, and then handed it to the governor's general counsel. Her resignation came shortly after she was questioned by state law enforcement officials conducting a three-year criminal investigation into accusations of illegal gambling, fraud and racketeering involving a nonprofit organization she once represented as a consultant.

"I offered everything that I could to the administration," Ms. Carroll said on Saturday, in her first interview since resigning. "I believe I did a fantastic job."

Despite a tumultuous week, Ms. Carroll said in a 25-minute interview that she was ready to move on and that she viewed her resignation as a setback rather than a catastrophe. She said she was already fielding offers and was weighing a jump into corporate life, community service and, perhaps later, a return to politics.

"People are calling me asking me to run for this, that and the other thing," said Ms. Carroll, 53, who is married with three grown children. "I say, you know what? First of all, I am going to spend time with my family, because for the last two years it's been very difficult."

Asked later about the appropriateness of the skit, Ms. Carroll, whose earthiness helped charm Floridians and lawmakers, quipped, "I'm glad she had the stilettos and was looking good."

Ms. Carroll's resignation came after a political career that began in 2003 when she won a special election for a seat in the State House, becoming the first black Republican woman to do so.

Ms. Carroll has not been charged with a crime and said she was cooperating fully with investigators, who accuse the nonprofit organization, Allied Veterans of the World, of running dozens of quasi-gambling operations, called Internet "sweepstakes" cafes, and bilking veterans groups of most of the proceeds.

Nearly 60 people have been arrested in the case. Ms. Carroll did public relations work for Allied Veterans in 2009 and 2010.

Friends and colleagues said they would be astonished if Ms. Carroll, a retired lieutenant commander who spent her career supporting veteran and military causes, had been aware of the alleged fraud. She would not comment on the investigation and agreed to be interviewed only about her personal and professional life.

"Everybody was hoodwinked," said Cindy Graves, the head of the Florida Federation of Republican Women, who is a friend of Ms. Carroll's and shares a hometown, Jacksonville. "I'm sure that she was appalled, as so many of us were who were taken in by this group."

But as the skit made plain, Ms. Carroll's relationship with Mr. Scott was seen as troubled well before news of the investigation. Rumblings had surfaced in recent months that he might replace her in the 2014 campaign. Her connection to Allied Veterans was seen in Tallahassee as the latest in a string of missteps that Mr. Scott had come to view as troublesome, political consultants said, among them, excessive travel expenses and the firing of an aide who later made embarrassing accusations about her and the governor's office.

As a lawmaker, too, Ms. Carroll was tripped up by ethical lapses or oversights: she received a master's degree from an online diploma mill; in 2010, she introduced a bill to legalize sweepstakes cafes, despite her work for Allied, later saying an aide had filed the bill without her knowledge; and she overstated her net worth in 2005 by $200 million, eventually amending it to show that her assets totaled $2 million.

Last year, a former staff member, who is facing criminal charges, suggested that Ms. Carroll was having an affair with a woman who was her aide. Ms. Carroll, who has been married for 30 years, offended lesbians by saying, "Black women who look like me don't have relationships like that." She later apologized, but critics said it was a major stumble.

"There were red flags in Carroll's political career dating back more than 10 years ago," said Dan Krassner, the executive director of the independent ethics watchdog group Integrity Florida.

Other critics said she could be viewed as egotistical.

But in 2010, Mr. Scott, a renegade, multimillionaire political neophyte in the governor's race, saw Ms. Carroll as an ideal political counterbalance and running mate.

It is easy to see why: a black woman, an immigrant and a Republican -- Ms. Carroll presented a rare trifecta in politics. She is a gifted orator who carried a National Rifle Association membership card, as well as one for the N.A.A.C.P. Her son, Nolan Carroll, plays cornerback for the Miami Dolphins, and she never misses home games.

"He looks to make sure I am there," she said, laughing. "He knows exactly where to spot me."

Ms. Carroll has mentored girls regularly, even taking time off the 2010 campaign to meet, as promised, with a Gainesville student, said Susan Wiles, a longtime political operative who worked on Mr. Scott's campaign.

And she does not shy from offering unsolicited advice and encouragement to children, even those she does not know and even while out shopping at Wal-Mart. "If they have their pants hanging down to their knees, I ask them to pull their pants up," she said. "Sometimes all it takes is for someone to show an interest."

Her back story delights voters and political consultants. A native of Trinidad who was raised in New York by her strict great-aunt and great-uncle, Ms. Carroll had the same drive and humble start as Mr. Scott. Proving naysayers wrong motivated her.

A tomboy who helped her uncle with plumbing and masonry -- and who can dip into salty language in private -- she chose to venture into male territory, selecting jet mechanic and aviation maintenance as her Navy job. Despite discouragement, racism and sexism, she said, she rose from the lowest rank to lieutenant commander.

"That was a very difficult experience for me," she said. "It was an environment where a lot of senior enlisted men did not want women in their Navy. They used to say that."

But she learned to thrive in a male-dominated enclave, which suited her well when she entered Republican politics, friends and colleagues said.

Twice she ran for Congress and lost. In between runs, Gov. Jeb Bush made her head of the state's veterans administration. But she persisted, ultimately winning a state legislative seat representing Clay and Duval Counties.

The extent of Ms. Carroll's involvement in the charity remains unclear, as does her future in politics. For Mr. Scott, however, her departure may offer an opportunity. Already there is talk that a Hispanic candidate might be ideal for the job.

But first, said John Stipanovich, a Republican lobbyist and consultant: "I would hire three recent former F.B.I. agents and three recent former I.R.S. agents, and a team of hard-nosed investigators. I would be very careful."

Christine Jordan Sexton reported from Tallahassee, and Lizette Alvarez from Miami.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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