The first sign of trouble for Adam Hollingsworth arrived via email one year ago yesterday, when Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo emailed Gov. Rick Scott’s communications director, Melissa Sellers, with a pointed question. “I’m hearing Hollingsworth was fired from CSX for lying about his academic credentials. True?” With Rick Scott away in Arizona for a Republican Governor’s Association meeting, Hollingsworth, as Scott’s chief of staff, was knee-deep in planning for the upcoming campaign against Charlie Crist, who had just officially announced his campaign for governor only two weeks earlier. Rumors in Tallahassee at the time speculated that Hollingsworth planned to exit from his chief of staff job to run Rick Scott’s re-election campaign. But the email from the Miami Herald changed all of that. Hollingsworth, a self-styled “crisis communications expert,” knew as soon as he read the email that he had a problem, but he also knew that the circumstances of his mysterious exit from CSX allowed him some wiggle room in how he answered Caputo’s pointed question. He ordered Melissa Sellers to respond with a one-word answer: “No.”
More questions came in the following days, as the Herald continued to dig into the story and eventually unraveled the facts.
Just before the story broke on December 6th, Hollingsworth walked into the governor’s office to tell Rick Scott the truth in a face-to-face meeting: for years, he’d committed academic fraud by claiming a degree from the University of Alabama that he had not earned. More questions about Hollingsworth’s integrity surfaced again only days later, raising new questions about fudged answers on his state application.
Scott initially defended Hollingsworth, telling reporters, “He’s admitted he made a mistake. He’s doing a great job.” But insiders say Scott put on a brave public face more out of necessity than out of any loyalty to Hollingsworth. In the opening weeks of the campaign against Crist, he couldn’t afford to have another chief of staff resign in disgrace. And so Scott ordered Sellers to craft a defensive strategy on Hollingsworth that minimized the negative headlines as much as possible.
From that point forward, however, Hollingsworth’s influence over the governor waned. Whispers inside the Governor’s Office referred to him as “Dead Man Walking,” while other staffers openly wondered: If they’d been caught in a similar lie, would they be afforded the same grace from Hollingsworth that Scott had shown him?
Less than a month later, Scott announced that Melissa Sellers, and not Hollingsworth, would lead the governor’s re-election efforts. From that moment, Sellers, Hollingsworth’s own protégé, held all the cards, forcing him to vet all major decisions through her.
Insiders say that Hollingsworth’s efforts to retool his tarnished image and develop a viable exit strategy have mostly been in vain. Business leaders around the state still take his calls because, at least for the next 10 days, he’s the governor’s chief of staff. But academic fraud is a significant black mark on a career, and only now may Hollingsworth appreciate just how bleak things look.
Former state Sen. John Thrasher, a fellow Jacksonville native and now president of Florida State University, spiked rumors last week that he would hire Hollingsworth at the university. Student groups, already up in arms over Thrasher himself, were nearly apoplectic when they learned Hollingsworth was under consideration.
“What kind of message would it send if the school hired someone they knew was guilty of academic fraud?” said one graduate assistant.
The latest speculation revolves around Hollingsworth trying to land a lobbying job in Tallahassee, but even that is fraught with problems.
“It’s tough to see the value he offers,” said one Tallahassee consultant. “He’s banned from lobbying the governor or any of his agencies, and Hollingsworth’s relationships inside the Legislature are almost worthless because nobody trusts him.”
Since the election, Hollingsworth’s prospects haven’t brightened much. When Scott announced Sellers was taking over as chief of staff this week, Hollingsworth’s departure was only mentioned as an afterthought. At the bottom of the press release announcing Sellers and another appointee, Scott said, “I also want to thank Adam Hollingsworth for his service to the State of Florida as my chief of staff for the last two and a half years. Adam has been laser-focused on helping make Florida the best place for future generations.”
The governor’s longest-serving chief of staff merited just two sentences at the bottom of a release about someone else.
Without a doubt, Hollingsworth will eventually land somewhere, and Rick Scott, feeling magnanimous after his re-election win, might have mercy on him and call in a favor. But for now, Hollingsworth is simply telling people he’s “taking the next month or two off.”
And for what it’s worth, that’s probably the truth.