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Florida prison system probed

Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

JACKSONVILLE — Packages of steroids mailed from Egypt to North Florida prison guards. A minor-league baseball player hired to play in a prison softball tournament. Inmates working on homes and cars of prison officials. Charges of cronyism and nepotism.

These proven and alleged wrongdoings in recent weeks have put Florida's Department of Corrections under the microscope of both state and federal investigators, with tentacles of the probe already grazing Secretary James Crosby, an appointee of Gov. Jeb Bush.

Crosby, 53, has not been named a target of any investigation, but has turned over a ladder, a leaf blower and a firewood rack from his Tallahassee home to investigators.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials would not say why they wanted the items or provide other details in the probe. Officials from the FBI have likewise acknowledged an investigation but have not released details. And Crosby himself will not comment during an ongoing investigation, department spokesman Robby Cunningham said Friday.

So far, five guards and one of their former girlfriends have pleaded guilty in federal court, promising to cooperate with prosecutors for lenient sentences. On Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Pashayan filed a request that Michael Chambliss' help with cases against other guards be considered during his sentencing Monday, when he was given one year's probation. The trial of a sixth, Marcus Hodges, is set for November.

Two other guards were charged in June with stealing from a prison recycling program.

State investigators, meanwhile, arrested a one-time minor-league ballplayer and former guard at Apalachee Correctional Institution on a grand theft charge, accusing him of accepting a no-show job to play in the prison system's softball tournament.

But the biggest casualty so far has been Crosby friend and protégé Allen W. Clark, who on Aug. 30 abruptly quit his $94,390-a-year job administering 14 prisons.

Clark, 40, a week later quit from the Judicial Nominating Commission for the 8th Circuit, the panel that interviews judicial candidates in North-Central Florida. Bush appointed Clark to the commission in 2001 and reappointed him last year, even though Clark did not have a college degree or any legal experience. Bush said recently he did not recall why he appointed him to the panel.

Clark's 2001 application for the position pointed out his history in "law enforcement" — as a military policeman in the Marine Corps.

"I am also very active in the community as well as the Republican Party, serving as vice chairman of the party in Union County," Clark wrote.

Bush told reporters last month that he had been briefed on details regarding the ongoing investigations but would not reveal them. He has also maintained confidence in Crosby, saying that he had "no reason not to."

Former Republican state party Chairman Tom Slade, who grew up in the prison town of Starke, said that the state's prison system has been riddled with scandals for decades, under both Republican and Democratic leadership.

"The corrections system is notoriously one of the lowest-paying state jobs in Florida, and it's one of the most dangerous. With those two factors, you don't get the quality of people that you'd like to have," Slade said. About the softball and steroids charges he added: "You couldn't make it up. It wouldn't be believable if you did."

Five plead guilty

Based on court records and other public documents, federal investigators have focused on a ring to distribute anabolic steroids in the prison system.

So far, Chambliss, Oscar Shipley, Benjamin Zoltowski, Bryan Griffis and Clayton Manning have pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville to the drug charges. Zoltowski and Manning each received three years' probation. Shipley's sentencing is set for Nov. 17; Griffis' is set for December.

According to documents filed there, Manning would periodically send packages of drugs from Egypt back to cohorts and unwitting helpers in Clay County. Manning's ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Hall, was given two years' probation for trying to hinder the investigation by urging a witness not to testify before the grand jury.

Two other guards, Theodore Foray and Paul Lamar Miller, face charges of theft for allegedly selling prison scrap metals and personally keeping the proceeds.

U.S. Customs officials had intercepted packages as early as March 2003, but prosecutors began to roll up the ring that autumn when, on Oct. 27, Zoltowski's girlfriend called the Clay County Sheriff's Office to send a deputy to his house to make sure there was no trouble as she moved out. After she had finished loading her belongings, she invited the deputy inside and showed him bags of pills, wads of cash, vials of injectable drugs and a notebook ledger filled with names and dollar amounts. The deputy returned with a search warrant, and Zoltowski was under arrest the next day.

Over the next year, federal prosecutors indicted and arrested four others, accusing them of conspiring to distribute steroids to other guards at state prisons in the area. In so doing, investigators lent credence to similar charges that had been circulating on a Web site contributed to by current and former department employees for about three years.

Kay Lee, a great-grandmother who said she started the site because she was outraged by the killing of inmate Frank Valdes in 1999, said that prison guards were initially suspicious of her but over the years started sending her abuse allegations to post anonymously. "They tell me now they're cheering me on, which is nice," she said.

Last week, the arrest of a former employee at Apalachee Correctional Institution in Sneads appeared to validate another of her Web site's charges: that prison administrators were approving the hiring of semi-pro baseball players as "ringers" to improve their chances of winning the "Secretary's Softball Tournament."

In an arrest affidavit for Mark Guerra, a 33-year-old former baseball player in Venezuela, FDLE inspector Travis Lawson stated that Guerra told him he was hired at Apalachee in April to play in the following month's tournament. Lawson wrote that Guerra was not able to name his supervisor, and that other workers in the prison library never saw him.

"Your affiant also learned that the (Apalachee) softball team won the 24th Annual Florida Department of Corrections Secretary's Tournament in Jacksonville, Florida," Lawson wrote in his Sept. 28 statement.

Softball, evidently, plays a large role in the lives of Florida prison guards and administrators. A 1999 Corrections Department inspector general's report looked into a list of allegations, including the misuse of "Employee Club" money at New River Correctional Institution in Raiford. The report described a dispute between a clique led by Clark that used much of the money for the softball team's equipment and travel and other employees who had no interest in softball.

One employee questioned a $6,000 purchase of uniforms, suggesting that the players' names should not be embroidered on them so that the uniforms could be washed and reissued. "Clark responded, 'To play sharp, you have to feel sharp and to feel sharp, you have to look sharp,' " the report stated.

The investigation found that some allegations — including one that Crosby, then a warden, improperly gave on-prison housing to Clark — were correct. The department, however, did not take disciplinary action against either man.

Hiring under review

Other investigators are looking at whether Clark and other officials improperly used prison labor to work on their personal vehicles and homes, and Corrections Department officials are looking at allegations that Clark used his power to hire his son above more-qualified applicants.

Lance Clark was hired at a salary of $27,000 upon his graduation from high school over three dozen other applicants, including some who already worked at the department.

Department spokesman Cunningham said officials are reviewing hiring practices across the 26,000-employee agency to make sure that the most-qualified candidates are getting jobs.

Bush brought in his own secretary of corrections when he took office in 1999, a South Carolina prison administrator named Michael Moore.

Moore and Bush's administration bucked Florida's long-standing prison culture by aggressively pursuing the prosecution of Florida State Prison guards involved in the 1999 death of condemned murderer Valdes, who was awaiting execution for the shooting death of Palm Beach County corrections officer Fred Griffis in 1987. Crosby was the warden there at the time.

Prosecutors, however, were unable to convict the guards in a part of the state where the prisons are the largest employers for miles around.

When Moore left in 2003, Bush replaced him with Crosby, a veteran prison system insider.

Crosby and Clark were involved in Bush's 2002 reelection campaign, as were many prison guards from North-Central Florida. The union that represents guards, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, endorsed Bush that year, as it had four years earlier.

Bush so far has stuck by Crosby, telling reporters last week that in a half-hour meeting with him, he told Crosby: "Don't let the blanks get you down."

Bush, though, has during his 6 1/2 years in office, shown a pattern of steadfastly standing by beleaguered agency heads when they initially come under fire, but later cutting them loose after news media attention dies down.

Former Department of Children and Family Secretaries Kathleen Kearney and Jerry Regier departed under this scenario, as did former Education Commissioner Jim Horne.

FDOC full of nepotism and favoritism.