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Corrections workers punished for moves

By MEG LAUGHLIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 10, 2007

In a sweeping crackdown, Corrections Secretary James McDonough made a series of moves Tuesday aimed at breaking up a widespread scheme in which inmates paid well-connected civilians to get transfers to prisons
of their choice.He suspended one corrections administrator without pay, while the investigation continues. He demoted two others, calling their actions "a failure of leadership."

   "In the ongoing investigation, criminal charges remain a possibility," said Corrections Department spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.

   As part of the crackdown, the general counsel for the department sent scathing letters to a prominent Tallahassee lawyer and a well-known prison consultant who, according to the letter, worked with the three
administrators to orchestrate "the improper transfer of inmates for illicit purposes."

   The lawyer and consultant were forbidden "from communicating in any manner, either directly or indirectly, with any Department of Corrections employees," wrote general counsel Kathleen Von Hoene.

   The three-month investigation, first reported on the St. Petersburg Times Web site, has uncovered the "unfair and unethical transfer" of more than 300 inmates who paid between $2,000 and $7,000 to jump to the
head of the line for transfers to other prisons.

   David Tune, a program administrator for inmates, who oversaw work release programs, was indefinitely suspended without pay and remains under investigation.

   Demoted wereJohn McLaughlin, former classification chief, to a middle management job helping inmates prepare to re-enter society; and John Becker, administrator for sentence structuring, to senior classification officer at Jefferson Correctional Institution.

   Both employees took pay cuts of more than $10,000 a year.

   The letters of reprimand were sent to Tallahassee attorney Bernard F. Daley Jr. and Ron Jones, a retired corrections administrator who works with Daley to get inmates transferred.

   In the letters, Daley and Jones were accused of misconduct  "contrary to concepts of honesty and justice."

   Among the allegations against them: "manipulating the movement of pairs of inmates …for improper relationships," and "manipulating the movement of groups of inmates … for improper association."

   In exchange for payment from inmates, said the letters, Daley and Jones engaged in "fixing inmate housing assignments through improper dealings with department staff."

   Corrections officials would not comment on whether employees received money or compensation for the transfers.

   "We’ve done nothing illegal," Daley said.

   Daley said the letters shocked Jones and him.

   "We accept and respect that Jim McDonough has a different view of a practice that’s been going on for years," said Daley, "But it was really rough getting those letters, because we didn’t think we were doing anything wrong."

   "Lobbying is done all the time," he said.

   In a response letter, he wrote: "The vast majority of our work was simply to bring to the attention of the Department … those cases which … appear to have some merit for consideration."

   McDonough said the investigation into transfer practices began months ago when he listened in to phone calls of inmates complaining about paying outside agents for transfers that hadn’t occurred.

   Most requests were for two institutions: South Bay Correctional Institution, a privately run prison in South Florida, which has air conditioning and numerous self-improvement programs, and Wakulla Correctional Institution, a faith-based prison in the Panhandle.

   "If mom and dad call in, that’s fine," said McDonough. "But when it’s a business, that raises a lot of flags."

   In return for payment from inmates and their families, Jones and Daley arranged "improper prioritized or expedited transfers," according to the Corrections Department letter. Typically inmates can wait a year or more for a transfer and must have clean disciplinary records.

   "It’s simply not fair and shouldn’t happen," said McDonough.

   But Louis Wainwright, corrections secretary from 1963 to 1987, said he views the practice differently: "With over 90,000 inmates and a lot of transfer requests, the system can’t possibly be conscientious every time and sometimes needs help."

   Wainwright acknowledged that he has worked on inmate transfers with Gainesville attorney Stephen Johnson.

   "We didn’t receive a letter accusing us of misconduct," he said. "But the secretary did call, and being rightly cautious expressed concern."

   Five other corrections administrators, besides the three who were suspended or demoted, were put on administrative paid leave last week. But they were not accused of any wrong-doing and have returned to work.
However, Plessinger said, the investigation is "fanning out" in other directions.

   "We’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen again," said McDonough.

   Meg Laughlin can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8068.

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