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High-priced hiring at Cyber Florida raises questions

Emails raise questions about the search process
Cyber Florida Executive Director Mike McConnell
Posted at 12:17 PM, Sep 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-30 18:12:45-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Cyber Florida, a state agency with a $6.45 million budget of your tax money, hired a former National Security Agency director without interviewing any other candidates or conducting a national search.

Now, the ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered emails the new hire sent to a former colleague raising questions about how he filled the number two job at that state agency.

The agency, overseen by the University of South Florida hired former National Security Agency (NSA) Director Mike McConnell in 2020.

“The person listening to what I had to say every day was the President”

Vice admiral Mike McConnell has worked with America’s most powerful political leaders for three decades.

“The person listening to what I had to say every day was the President and the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs,” McConnell said of his long career in the federal government.

Mike McConnell swearing in with President George W. Bush
Mike McConnell swearing in with President George W. Bush

He served as Director of the National Intelligence and was later named Director of the NSA, where he served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He later went to work for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

Last February, University of South Florida president Steven Currall asked McConnell to lead Cyber Florida, a state agency supporting cyber security education, research, and outreach located on the USF campus.

“He said look, 'I’d like for you to take over as executive director. And I said well, I don’t want to move to Florida,'” McConnell said.

Under his employment agreement, McConnell doesn’t have to move here, but he is required to spend two days a month at USF. So far, that hasn’t happened. He’s only been to Tampa four times due to the pandemic. Two of those visits were in February and March of 2020 before the USF campus was shut down.

McConnell said he has been highly effective working remotely.

“You and I are having this conversation like we’re sitting in the same room. And I have a little bit of a bandwidth problem. I live in a remote area,” he said. “But I’m on the telephone with Cyber Florida, the provost, the deans, the president, regularly. “

$450,000 pay rate “basically cut my salary in half”

McConnell is paid $450,000 a year from public and private funds for a .4 FTE (full-time equivalent) job, which is a 16-hour workweek.

General account principals calculate FTE by multiplying the number of weeks an employee works in a year by a 40-hour week, of 2,080 hours per year. $200,000 of McConnell’s compensation comes directly from state funds. The other $250,000 is derived from private monies, such as foundations.

McConnell earns more than three times the salary of Gov. Ron DeSantis and $50,000 more than U.S. President Joe Biden for the part-time gig. He is also allowed, under his contract, to earn additional money from serving on private boards, from speaking fees, and from other paying jobs.

“For me to do this, I had to step back from my time at Booz Allen. It basically cut my salary in half,” McConnell said.

He told the I-Team he was earning more than $1,000 an hour working for that private company, which derives much of its business from government contracts.

Staff director position advertised, multiple candidates apply

McConnell was given the green light to hire a full-time staff director. The position was advertised by USF on April 17th, 2020.

“It seemed like they needed a Jane of all trades,” said Dr. Jenice Armstead, who applied for the job online.

Jenice Armstead

Armstead, a military veteran with multiple degrees and 20 years of experience in business and higher education, was among four qualified finalists for the position selected for an interview. She said she was very excited about the job prospect.

“I mean it’s a position with Cyber Florida, working with USF. Who wouldn’t want to have that type of opportunity? Especially to give back to a community that I currently live in,” Amstead said.

Attorney Daniela Carrion, who specializes in employment law, said the job posting appeared to follow normal university hiring practices.

“They have an office called the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity. They set up the policies and protocols for hiring. Within these policies and protocols it states that if it’s a position that should be advertised, it should be advertised for at least seven days,” Carrion said.

Two days before her scheduled interview, Armstead received an email from a Cyber Florida staff member canceling it.

The email said, “At this time we are not proceeding with recruiting for this job opening.”

“I was taken aback and disappointed because that was a position that I felt like I could really do a lot of professional good in and I was not given that opportunity,” Armstead said.

Emails show discussions about the position

McConnell’s friend and former Booz Allen colleague Dr. Ron Sanders, who worked in another department at USF, was given the opportunity.

In an email sent by Sanders to McConnell on April 6, 2020, Sanders said, “I’m wondering if you have a few minutes to discuss the attached position description (mine)”.

On March 3, 2020, just days after McConnell was appointed Executive Director of Cyber Florida; Sanders sent him a proposed organizational chart, with Sanders named as the “Associate Director”.

Cyber Florida Proposed Org Chart

The next day, Sanders sent a Microsoft Word document titled “Sanders Cyber Florida Announcement” as an attachment to an email to McConnell, in which he said, “You do NOT need to include all the bio-fluff!”

“In this case, what we see is kind of like a backdoor, handshake deal,” Carrion said.

When asked about the emails, McConnell admitted they discussed plans to bring Sanders into the job. In fact, McConnell said, he made it a condition of his employment when he discussed taking over Cyber Florida with USF President Steven Currall, who has since resigned.

“Sure we were coordinating because we had planned to do this together. And somewhere along the line, one of our younger staff members said you know, you have to compete this. And we said, 'Oh, goodness. We didn’t know that. Ok. We’ll go through the process and advertise and we’ll do it appropriately,' ” McConnell said.

An email from April 4, 2020 shows Sanders recommending who to put on the interview committee. McConnell said after advertising the position on April 17, 2020 he learned Sanders could be transferred within the university without Cyber Florida having to consider other candidates.

That’s when McConnell says he canceled the interviews.

Four qualified job applicants, including Sanders and Armstead, had been sent invitations to interview.

Another email obtained by the I-Team sent from Sanders to McConnell six days before the job was posted showed that Sanders seemed to be aware of the university’s internal transfer process.

“Thanks for pushing my realignment through, Sanders wrote in the email. “I know you had to do some convincing.”

“In Sander’s case, he was finishing his academic term. We had already talked about him moving over, which was legitimate. We wanted to do that. So Dean Eisenberg just wrote him the standard format letter to say your period’s terminating here,” McConnell said.

Internal candidate was given notice of “non-reappointment” by USF months earlier, the transfer made after existing title expired

We obtained the letter Dean Eisenberg wrote, which was hand-delivered to Sanders in October 2019, six months before McConnell even took the job at Cyber Florida.

It was a notice of “non-reappointment” telling Sanders, “It is no longer in the University’s best interest to continue your appointment.”

USF Notice of Non Reappointment
USF Notice of Non Reappointment

The notice indicated Sander’s employment as Director of the School of Public Affairs would be terminated at the end of the academic term.

On May 22nd, Sanders sent an email to McConnell saying, “We’re reaching crunch time,” referring to a grant proposal he wrote using the title Director of the School of Public Affairs.

“The problem is, that is no longer my title. In fact, I have none until my transfer to Cyber Florida is effected,” Sanders wrote.

Mythical Role USF

“Thanks for the heads up and reminder,” McConnell responded.

Days later, Sanders resigned from the position he claimed in that email he no longer held and McConnell appointed him to the new job at a $159,000 a year salary, the same salary Sanders earned in his previous position.

“I needed somebody that was hands-on and so I said, based on my background with Dr. Sanders, I’d like to move him over. They agreed to that,” McConnell said.

Armstead said she was never told the position she applied for had been filled.

“Had no idea until you called me up and told me, and that was shocking,” Armstead said.

“I think the fact that it is a large university, we would hope that through their policies and procedures there would be more transparency, but I think this is a case where we can see that’s just not happening,” Carrion said.

“It was just a mistake on our part”

Armstead said she should have been able to interview for the position since it was advertised.

“Absolutely I think I should have. I think all candidates have a right,” Armstead said.

“This was a situation that shouldn’t have happened. But fortunately, I was blessed enough to be able to go on and be professionally successful somewhere else,” Armstead said.

“It was just a mistake on our part. New people. Misinformed. Took steps we shouldn’t have. We stepped back, corrected it, and moved on,” McConnell said.

McConnell hired former Booz Allen Hamilton colleague Anthony Urbanovich in January to serve as his Chief Technology Officer at a salary of $250,000. His salary was more than double his predecessor’s pay rate of $101,377.

McConnell said Urbanovich had additional experience in applying for grants and also had to take a significant pay cut to come work for Cyber Florida. He resigned from the job on September 17th.

Cyber Florida spokesperson Kathleen Whitaker said Urbanovich left, “to pursue more lucrative opportunities through his private consulting business”.

She sent us a follow-up email after our interview with Executive Director McConnell.

“All relevant USF internal transfer policies were followed during the process to appoint Ron Sanders as staff director of Cyber Florida. Had the policies required us to publicly post the job and bring in other candidates for interviews, we would have done so prior to hiring for the position,” the statement said.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com