"Crosby was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."
I was once ostracized for refusing to give James Crosby an MTWT Gold Star. I had not seen the man do anything good without being pushed, cajoled, and threatened - and then all he gave up was crumbs. Kay Lee
Scandals test state prisons chief
Corrections Secretary James Crosby came in to straighten things out, but now he finds himself among widening investigations.
By Steve Bousquet
St. Petersburg Times
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
CRAWFORDVILLE - As the leader of one of the nation's largest prison systems walked to the podium, applause rippled through a sparsely decorated conference room at Wakulla Correctional Institution.
Corrections Secretary James Crosby was eager to perform a task he enjoys: giving a pep talk to the troops. About 150 probation officers had gathered for a seminar in August on the Jessica Lunsford Act, the state's new sex offender law.
Introduced simply as "the secretary," Crosby praised rank-and-file workers for their dedication and reminded them of the thanklessness of their work.
"We are judged strictly by our failures," Crosby said. "That's a tough business to be in. That's a tough job."
The same might be said of Crosby himself.
Three years after Gov. Jeb Bush asked him to take command of a rudderless agency, Crosby's deep familiarity with the prison culture and his intense loyalty to its players no longer look like assets. Even in a bureaucracy with 20,000 employees, 86,000 inmates and a $2-billion annual budget, the steady drip-drip-drip of bad news on Crosby's watch is impossible to ignore.
A Crosby friend and protege, Allen Clark, resigned in August as a regional director in charge of 13 prisons while a joint state-federal probe focused on allegations of improper use of prison labor and equipment.
The FBI and the FDLE are conducting probes that seem to widen daily. To date, eight corrections officers have been charged with crimes ranging from steroid use to embezzlement, personal vehicles of two high-ranking prison officials have been seized and a former inmate has given investigators a diary of the work he says guards forced him to do to benefit them personally.
Crosby himself voluntarily gave investigators three items they requested from his Tallahassee home: a metal rack used to hold firewood, a leaf blower and a ladder. Investigators declined to say why they requested the items and Crosby also wouldn't comment.
"It's like there's blood in the water and the sharks are circling," said David Murrell of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a union leader who supports Crosby. "If we had our way, he would continue. He's really been a strong advocate for the corrections officers."
Crosby himself is not talking, but his boss, Bush, voiced strong confidence in his appointee Tuesday.
"He's a good man. He's done a good job," Bush said. "There are times when there is a piling on and a frenzy and sometimes the inclination in public life is to cut and run, and throw the guy off the boat. I'm not that kind of person."
Three years ago, "Jimmy" Crosby was the local boy who made good, thanks in part, to Bush.
Crosby is from Bradford County, where generations of young men viewed a career in the prisons as practically a birthright. He got a journalism degree at the University of Florida, but came home to the company town that raised him.
Growing up in the shadow of Florida State Prison, Crosby worked his way up from intake supervisor to warden of the state's toughest institution, home of death row and cellblocks housing the state's most incorrigible killers.
He also had an appetite for politics. Crosby, 53, was mayor of his hometown of Starke. He switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, worked as a local volunteer for George W. Bush's 2000 campaign and was a delegate that year to the Republican convention.
Bush's hiring of Crosby, after the rocky tenure of his predecessor, Michael Moore, inspired such optimism that 1,000 people turned out for a reception honoring him in 2003.
"I hope Secretary Crosby and his administration live up to the expectations and the hopes that so many people had when he took office," said one who was there, Crosby's longtime friend, state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, in an interview last week. "I think people are hoping for the best but are wanting to get to the bottom of this."
Smith, now a candidate for governor, said Crosby's close tie to Clark was a concern to many.
"They've been around each other a long, long time, and obviously that's of great concern to people, when Allen resigned," Smith said.
Because Crosby and Clark are so close, Clark's sudden resignation cast an ominous shadow on Crosby, which the secretary sees as an unfair case of guilt by association.
With Crosby's support, Clark worked his way up to a $94,000-a-year job overseeing North Florida prisons. Clark was known for fierce competitiveness at softball and seemed to have a secure future in the system despite a personnel record checkered with disciplinary investigations.
Now, Clark, 40, is out of a job. FDLE agents have taken possession of his Jeep Wrangler. They also seized vehicles and trailers belonging to five other prison employees, scattered across six counties from Santa Rosa to Bradford.
Crosby, bald with piercing blue eyes and built like a fireplug, has risen above controversy in the past. He was in charge of Florida State Prison in 1999 when inmate Frank Valdes died after a beating in his cell while guards were moving him. Crosby was on vacation at the time. The guards, tried in a local courthouse where prisons are the dominant employer, were found not guilty.
In the Valdes crisis, the gregarious Crosby defused the controversy by throwing open the doors of FSP's notorious X-Wing for tours by reporters and camera crews.
"We want people to look at us," Crosby said then as the FBI and FDLE looked into charges of brutality by guards.
Today, however, Crosby, who earns $124,000 a year, is powerless to put a happy face on an agency increasingly beset by problems.
The investigations began last year, with allegations that a ring of guards imported illegal steroids and distributed them. Four corrections officers pleaded guilty and a fifth will go on trial next month.
Since then, investigations have expanded to the pilfering of scrap metal from prison grounds, the alleged misuse of state-owned property and the use of prison inmates for work on the private vehicles of prison officials and guards.
Murrell of the PBA, a Crosby ally whose union represents prison guards, called Crosby progressive, open-minded and fair. He said Crosby has been an advocate of higher pay and benefits for correctional officers, or COs, as they are known.
"He came up through the ranks," Murrell said. "He's always been close to rank and file officers. He cares about them and empathizes with them."
Murrell remembers a prison guards' rally at the Capitol where Crosby rallied the troops. "He talks their talk, and they were just ecstatic," Murrell said.
What is perhaps Crosby's greatest asset, his skill at public relations, is nowhere to be seen in the current controversy. He's not allowed to give interviews.
He cannot discuss, for instance, what he sees as a success that undercuts perceptions of cronyism. It is the agency's A grade by a black-oriented newspaper, Capital Outlook, for diversity in hiring and promoting African-Americans in senior management positions.
The newspaper found that seven of the 26 senior management jobs in the prison system are held by black people.
Lately, Crosby spends his days looking over his shoulder as investigators swarm over his fiefdom, seizing property and grilling his subordinates on everything from hiring practices to the handling of prison scrap metal. Crosby's spokesman, Robby Cunningham, tells reporters that they can't talk to Crosby.
"He's not available for interviews," Cunningham said.
Times staff writers Joni James and Lucy Morgan and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
JOB: Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections
DUTIES: Oversees one of the nation's largest prison systems, with 86,000 inmates
IN THE NEWS: Investigators took three items from his Tallahassee home as part of a widening inquiry into the state's prison system.
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