Five months after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proudly announced his new election crimes and security office had nabbed nearly 20 former felons for illegally voting in the 2020 election, four of those cases have been dismissed, one resulted in a plea deal with a small fine and, we’ve discovered, the election security office he took credit for, barely has anyone on its employee roster.
In an office organizational chart we obtained from the Department of State, the number of vacant positions currently in the office far outnumbers employees on its payroll. As of Wednesday, the elections crime office has just three of its 15 positions filled.
The positions that remain vacant in the office span across every role in the new unit including a senior attorney and a permanent director after its former chief, Pete Antonacci, died unexpectedly back in September. Its interim director also recently left.
“You would think they would have the positions filled by this point,” said Tampa attorney Stephen Crawford. He represents one of the nearly 20 ex-felons arrested as part of the squad’s first round up.
His client, like most of the individuals arrested over the summer, claims he thought his voting rights had been restored and was issued a voter identity card before he cast his ballot in the 2020 election.
While his client’s legal fight continues, Crawford isn’t surprised the office tasked with investigating his client can’t seem to fill its job positions.
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone, there’s no need for this office,” said Crawford.
But Crawford was surprised to learn what we discovered about one of its newest hires.
On paper, Brooke Renney is listed as a Program Director for the state’s new election crimes office.
In an email, a Department of State spokesperson described Renney, who was hired earlier this month at a salary of $100,000 a year, as the unit’s new “Assistant Director.”
But a search online, reveals the 32-year-old’s history with Florida elections has nothing to do with enforcing laws or upholding security
Instead, Renney is a self-described political operative.
Her Instagram account, dubbed “Operative Life” is riddled with images of her work getting Republican candidates in Florida elected, including former Governor Rick Scott.
In an online bio for a company she previously worked for, Renney is described as having stints with the Republican Party of Florida and receiving accolades from the Republican National Committee as “one of the best performing regional field directors in the country.”
While Renney’s Instagram account appears to show her impressive history of working to sway Florida votes for Republicans, in podcasts she hosted last year, also titled “Operative Life,” Renney readily admits to her audiences what she doesn’t know about the election process.
“I will never tell you I know everything about election integrity or administration and what does or doesn’t happen in an election,” she said in one episode about the checks and balances of voting machines.
In another episode about the rules of engagement as a political operative, she states, “I’m not an attorney and I'm certainly not an election law expert but I have built multiple operations based on election law,” she tells her audience.
“It's really that election administration, which I think is really critical for someone in a position like that, because you can find quirks in the way in which we run our elections,” explained University of Florida Political Science Professor Dr. Michael McDonald.
“Obviously, this person is not qualified to know the law about elections and how to prosecute people but is it surprising to me that you would find somebody who is a campaign operative gets placed into a position of leadership of any bureaucracy really, no, not at all,” Dr. McDonald explained.
Brooke Renney wouldn’t return our calls or texts.
Florida’s Department of State declined our requests for an interview with Renney or Florida’s Secretary of State, Cord Byrd. Bryd, a former Republican lawmaker considered one of the more right-wing lawmakers in the state, also made headlines last year when Governor DeSantis appointed him as head of the state agency tasked with running the elections.
In response to our questions about Renney’s qualifications for an Assistant Director role in, what’s supposed to be a non-partisan state election crimes and security office, Department of State spokesperson Mark Ard sent us an email that stated, in part,
“We are not going to respond to questions that are obviously meant to target and smear one of our staff. We were fortunate to have Ms. Renney join our team. Her experience in the field, including helping Floridians who were victimized by election crimes, gives her valuable insight into the operations of elections and combatting election crimes.”
In legislative budget proposals for the upcoming session, Florida’s Secretary of State is asking for another $2.2 million for the office to hire an additional 27 employees for the elections crimes office. When asked about its current worker vacancy issues, spokesperson Ard said in an email that its hiring process is “ongoing and always will be.”
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley also leads Florida’s Association for Election Supervisors. He didn’t know about Renney’s hiring but cautioned why her past could be reason for concern in her new role.
“The administration of elections and the enforcement of electoral law needs to be done in a very nonpartisan and a-political manner,” he said. “There's a lot of power in that office and I think you need to have a very even hand,” Earley said.
“They have the ability to arrest people and subject people to jail. That’s why we should take this seriously,” attorney Stephen Crawford said.