More revelations in Fla. prison scandal

Wardens fired, corruption charges probed

April 02, 2006|By JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI -- Florida's Department of Corrections, the nation's third-largest with 128 prisons and other facilities housing more than 85,000 inmates, is in the throes of a multifaceted scandal that shows no sign of stopping.

A new interim chief appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush has been firing wardens and probing possible cases of corruption and cronyism among prison personnel, while state and federal agents have been investigating a prison-based steroid ring, theft of state property and misuse of inmate labor.

Five veteran officers have been fired for their part in a drunken brawl that followed a banquet, or for lying about what happened. Witnesses said the melee erupted in a Tallahassee armory after a former corrections officer leaving the dance floor slipped in a puddle of beer and vomit.

"The absence of integrity, the brutality displayed and unleashed on others, and the dearth of leadership was totally unacceptable," said interim Corrections Secretary James McDonough, a decorated war veteran and Florida's former drug czar.

In March, McDonough fired four prison wardens, three assistant wardens and two regional directors, saying that they "did not have my trust and confidence to lead department personnel in the way they deserve to be led."

Then, state Attorney General Charlie Crist said that under McDonough's predecessor, a former minor-league baseball player had been placed in a no-show job in a prison library so he could help guards win a softball tournament.

"It is disturbing that a state agency would place so much importance on a team sport that it would stoop to committing crimes," Crist told reporters.

The ringer, Mark Guerra, has agreed to reimburse the state $1,400 and complete 50 hours of community service, Crist said.

For Ron McAndrew, a retired warden, the shake-up in the department where he worked for 23 years has come none too soon.

"Wild and crazy things were happening," said McAndrew, who keeps informed through e-mail contacts with hundreds of corrections employees and retirees. "One warden took his prison softball team to Las Vegas, gave them $35,000, and said, `Have a good time boys. You've earned it.'"

Last week, McDonough told state legislators that he was examining the propriety of two multimillion-dollar, no-bid contracts awarded to a Tallahassee-based company to provide inmates with prescription drugs. The new corrections chief also said he had frozen more than 50 "club" funds opened by prison wardens for employees that were not subject to department oversight. The accounts may hold more than $1.5 million, he said.

Though these funds were intended to pay for morale-boosting events like family picnics, McDonough said they were used to pay for employee softball teams, the teams' hotel bills, and other activities "only a few could partake in."

Under former Corrections Secretary James Crosby, a network of "good old boys" from the rural countries of northeastern Florida came to dominate the department, said McAndrew.

Sometimes wardens and other department officials covered up for "goon squads," or groups of prison guards that beat up and terrorized inmates.

Harry K. Singletary Jr., the state's corrections secretary from 1991 to 1999, said the department he once headed had been sullied by "a tragedy of epic proportions."

"There are so many good corrections employees and families that deserve better and are now stigmatized by these crooks and rascals," Singletary said in an e-mail.

John-Thor Dahlburg writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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