TALLAHASSEE — Pete Antonacci, whose decades-long career in Florida politics and government led to his appointment this year leading Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial elections security force, died on Friday at age 74.
Antonacci had an unparalleled career in state government and politics, having been appointed to various positions by five different governors from both sides of the aisle since the 1980s.
In July, he was chosen by DeSantis to lead the state’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security, which last month announced charges against 20 felons for voting illegally. Most of those arrested told Florida investigators that they received a voter registration card from their county elections supervisor’s office and believed they were authorized by someone in government to vote.
DeSantis said in a statement Friday that he and his wife, Casey, were “deeply saddened” by his passing.
“He was a dedicated, tenacious, and assiduous public servant, lawyer, and respected professional — a friend to all in the State of Florida,” DeSantis said. “He vigilantly sought to uphold the law throughout his lengthy career as a deputy Attorney General, Statewide Prosecutor, General Counsel, Supervisor of Elections, and most recently as the newly appointed watchdog over Florida’s election security.
“His fighting passion will be missed, and his legacy will persist in the hearts and minds of many.”
The governor’s office did not identify the cause of Antonacci’s death, but the website Florida Politics, which first reported his death, cited a heart attack.
News of Antonacci’s death prompted praise and messages of sympathy from across the political aisle.
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican who appointed Antonacci as his general counsel and several other positions when he was governor, said Antonacci “knew how to bring people together and solve problems.”
“I was honored to call him a friend and proud to work with him,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who as governor named Antonacci to a judicial nominating commission and reappointed him to the board of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, extended his condolences to Antonacci’s family. Crist is now running as a Democrat for governor against DeSantis.
“Peter Antonacci was a dedicated and respected public servant with a long history of working with members from both sides of the aisle to better Florida,” Crist’s spokesperson said in a statement.
Antonacci was born Aug. 21, 1948, and grew up in Hialeah, graduating from Hialeah High School before earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in urban and regional planning and a law degree in 1979 at Florida State University.
In 1980, he was appointed as a prosecutor for the judicial circuit based in Tallahassee, beginning a diverse — though sometimes controversial — career as a trusted adviser and political fixer to some of the most powerful officials in the state.
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As a local prosecutor in 1987, he dismissed accusations of criminal sexual harassment against a powerful state Rep. Fred Lippman, D-Hollywood, made by one of the lawmaker’s aides. Three months later, Antonacci applied for the job as a special prosecutor. After the judicial nominating commission selected him as a finalist, Antonacci later testified, he asked Lippman for help winning the position.
He became the state’s second statewide prosecutor in 1988. From 1991 to 1997, he served as Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth’s top deputy, managing over 300 lawyers, according to Antonacci’s resume.
From 1998 to 2012, he served in private practice, mostly as a shareholder in the firm GrayRobinson, but he never found himself far from the seat of power.
Then-Gov. Jeb Bush picked him to serve on the Florida Commission on Ethics in 2001, as a special prosecuting counsel for the Senate in 2004, judicial nominating commission in 2005 and a water management district board in 2006. Antonacci also represented Bush’s daughter, Noelle, when crack cocaine was found in her shoe in 2002.
But Antonacci became particularly trusted to Scott when he became governor in 2011. After picking Antonacci to serve out a term as Palm Beach County State Attorney, Scott chose him to be the governor’s general counsel in 2013.
As the governor’s top lawyer, Antonacci also found himself at the center of one of Scott’s biggest scandals in office. In 2015, then-Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey resigned unexpectedly. Scott said he resigned voluntarily, but Bailey later said Antonacci ordered him to “retire or resign” after eight years as commissioner and more than two decades with the agency.
The firing of someone who reported to the governor and Cabinet, without a public discussion, appeared to violate the state’s open meetings law.
Following the 2018 election, Scott removed Broward County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes for alleged malfeasance and appointed Antonacci to replace her. Despite initial complaints by Democrats, Antonacci won bipartisan praise for his handling of the 2020 election, which was the smoothest in years for the county.
Antonacci served in the role until DeSantis in 2019 fired the head of the Division of Administrative Hearings, an obscure panel of judges that oversee state-related administrative disputes, and chose Antonacci as the replacement.
Times staff writers Tom Tobin and Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this story.