April 24, 2024


Watchdogs on a Leash

The Legislature beefed up the law governing agency watchdogs, but are they still too vulnerable to political pressure?

Cynthia Barnett | 7/1/2009

“I basically got fired for doing the right thing,” says Fred Schuknecht, who lost his job as inspector general after 26 years at the Department of Corrections. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
Every state agency in Florida has an inspector general — an internal watchdog trained to sniff out corruption, dig up fraud and make sure tax dollars are spent wisely. But in recent years, some Florida inspectors have found themselves in the doghouse — fired or asked to resign by bosses at the agencies where the inspectors were supposed to provide independent oversight.

The case of Inspector General Linda Keen at the Agency for Health Care Administration made headlines last year when new AHCA Secretary Holly Benson asked Keen to leave the agency. Keen had written a report critical of a pilot project meant to reform the state’s Medicaid system. Its prime sponsor in the Legislature: Then-Rep. Holly Benson.

In the last six years, at least three other inspectors were forced out of state government positions for reasons that they say had nothing to do with their job performance:

» In 2003, when James Crosby became secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, he fired the department’s longtime inspector general, Fred Schuknecht, who had investigated A.C. Clark, a friend of Crosby’s. Both Crosby and Clark are now in prison for accepting kickbacks. Schuknecht’s 26½-year career with the Department of Corrections was destroyed [“Unwelcome Competence”].

» In 2006, then-interim FAMU President Castell Bryant fired the university’s interim inspector general, Michael Brown, after he began investigating allegations that her administration was distorting the picture of the university’s finances. A year later, following a wrongful termination suit, the university paid Brown a settlement of $90,000 and reinstated him to a three-year job at the FAMU Foundation.

» Last year, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos asked longtime Inspector General Cecil Bragg to resign. Under Bragg, hired by former Secretary Ben Watts in the fall of 1993, the department had moved aggressively against corrupt contractors and employees, helping to bring criminal action in major cases involving White Construction of Chiefland and Cone Constructors of Tampa. Watts’ attitude — shared by his immediate successors — was “just do your job and don’t even bring reports to me because I don’t want the appearance of influence” either for or against a contractor, Bragg says.

Kopelousos didn’t share that approach, Bragg says. As chief of staff and then secretary, Kopelousos, on the advice of her legal staff, told Bragg he went too far in taking cases to law enforcement, Bragg says. She was “very worried,” he says, about what he audited and “very worried about what people would think.”

The agency’s general counsel, Alexis Yarbrough, told him that the Department of Transportation put itself at risk of litigation when it pursued investigations with law enforcement on cases including those against contractors, Bragg says. Yarbrough objected, for example, when Bragg worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement on a Miami case that last year led to the convictions of former Miami DOT supervisor Donnie Lee Cook and five others for bribery, racketeering, fraud and other charges. Bragg says Kopelousos stated that pursuing such investigations and prosecutions was “expensive and not appropriate use of department resources.” Neither Kopelousos nor Yarbrough would comment for this report.

“Don’t we owe it to the public to pursue aggressively those who defraud the department?” Bragg asks. “I think that’s a higher goal than trying to stop someone from suing us.”

Tags: Politics & Law, Government/Politics & Law

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